Although it seems ridiculous to say it at the end of August/beginning of September, but this week my winter season began in earnest, and with an amazing event that I will never forget.
My audience was one of the smallest I shall ever perform for, maybe 30 people at most, and the majority of them didn’t know who I was and hadn’t come to hear me anyway. Some were bored and spent the whole performance looking at their mobile phones, which they hadn’t even bothered to silence meaning that little tones rang out over my words as they scrolled and flicked through their important updates. Others obediently sat through the performance, whilst others laughed loudly and hung on to every word.
So why was this rather unmemorable sounding evening so memorable?
For the last 55 years (for my entire lifetime!) a gentleman by the name of Lawrence Drizen has been amassing an extraordinary collection of Charles Dickens related items, letters, documents and more first editions than you could ever imagine. Collectors such as Mr Drizen like to buy a piece and then look for a better, rarer, version of the same thing and then go after that. The result of 55 years of such upgrading is a collection of astounding value and rarity with almost everything having been dedicated or annotated by Charles himself.
But, as Lawrence himself says ‘Having reached the age of 84 years…I have decided to sell my Charles Dickens collection through Sotheby’s London.
‘I have enjoyed the last 55 years immensely. The dealers, auctioneers and fellow collectors have all become great friends of mine and I wish to thank them for their scholarship, help and devotion of the years.’
In order to promote the sale Sotheby’s decided that it would be fun to hold an exclusive event for other collectors and interested parties, and approached the Charles Dickens Museum in London to see if they would host it. Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, was delighted to help out and also offered to display part of the collection for a week or so.
Now, one lot in the auction is a bound copy of one of Charles’ reading scripts, as used by him on his 1867-8 USA tour. The script for ‘Mrs Gamp’ has Dickens’ handwriting all over it, where he edited and perfected the script. Some passages are crossed out and others underlined for emphasis. Charles had the script bound and dedicated it to his American publisher Charles Ticknor, of Ticknor and Fields in Boston.
The good gentlemen at Sotheby’s thought it would be a lovely idea to find someone who could read Mrs Gamp as Dickens had read it, using the original script and asked Cindy if she knew of anyone who could help. Cindy duly approached me, I lept at the idea, and the details were settled.
On Tuesday afternoon I travelled to London and at 5.30 took a taxi to the museum. On the route I passed the site of The St Martin’s Hall where Charles Dickens began his professional reading career, and that seemed to be a good omen for the connection that was to follow.
At the museum, after catching up with Cindy, I was introduced to Philip Errington from Sotheby’s who was bustling around excitedly making preparations. The pieces from the collection were in well lit display cases around the room and as he and I chatted I looked at the scrawling handwriting of my great great grandfather and felt a real closeness to Charles.
At one end of the room stood a replica of the old red reading desk and in the cabinet next to it was the copy of Mrs Gamp from which I would read. In the weeks leading up to the event I had been rehearsing from my own script, edited to exactly match the one in the sale, but Philip was keen that I should actually hold the original at some stage during my performance. I had looked up the catalogue online and was horrified to discover that the estimate for the tiny volume was £50,000 – £70,000! What if I turned a page rather too enthusiastically and ripped it, what if I coughed or sneezed over it? I’m not sure that genuine Dickens DNA would add to the value!
Philip and I agreed that I would begin the reading from the volume and then at a suitable point in the action I would hand it back to him and continue from my own copy. We decided at which point the switch would be made and practised, giving me the opportunity to stand in a brightly lit board room holding a tiny piece of my family history: a piece that links Charles and myself over 152 years – the link being performance.
The volume was locked back in the case, ready to be theatrically removed at the perfect moment, and I decided to have one final run through of Mrs Gamp, before the guests arrived. As I rehearsed my cousin Mark poked his head into the room and having exchanged greetings we both laughed in amazement at the quality – and expense – of Mr Drizen’s collection. I am sure we were both thinking ‘is there anything in an attic that we may have forgotten about?’ A spare £50,000 – £70,000 wouldn’t go amiss!
At 6.30 the guests started to arrive and Mark and I went downstairs to the café and garden to schmooze (he is much better at that than I am). We met other collectors and I was introduced to Mr Drizen himself for whom this must have been a bitter sweet evening. In the introduction to the auction catalogue he says ‘The sale will be a very sad occasion for me’ and the party with champagne and exquisite canapes must have been a wrench to his emotions.
At around 7 Cindy brought the room to silence, welcomed everyone to the museum and suggested that we all troop upstairs to the board room for the entertainment. Amongst the crowd was one of Britain’s finest stand up comedians, a man I admire very greatly, and his presence set my nerves tingling and my heart racing a little faster.
People were rather slow in mounting the stairs so I took myself into the exquisitely presented drawing room (furnished as it was when the Dickens family were in residence) to collect my thoughts, On entering the room I triggered an audio device which plays a loop of readings featuring famous characters and passages, and naturally what should begin but Miriam Margolyes reading Mrs Gamp! That I could have done without.
I quickly left the drawing room and went back to see how things were going in the board room. When all were gathered Philip welcomed everyone and talked about the collection, the sale and the reason for the evening, before welcoming me to the reading desk, and carefully handing me the precious book.
The connection with Charles this time was even greater than it had been an hour before, and I had to take a very deep breath and detach myself from my emotions so that I could actually do the job I was there to do. I began ‘Mr Pecksniff was in a handsome cabriolet…..’
Mrs Gamp is one of the shorter readings and was used to lighten the atmosphere after one of the major performances (such as The Carol, Little Paul Dombey, Sikes and Nancy etc). It runs at about 20 minutes and features not only the splendid titular character but also Mr Mould the undertaker who so admires Mrs Gamp that he is moved to say that she was the sort of woman that he would ‘really almost feel disposed to bury for nothing, and do it neatly too’!
The other lovely creation is Betsy Prig: ‘That interesting lady had a gruff voice and a beard’, who dares to confront Sairey Gamp over the existence of the mysterious Mrs Harris.
It is a fun reading, and as I said at the beginning some enjoyed it, some ignored it, but for me it was a never to be forgotten evening as I stood holding such a valuable book and being overwhelmed with such a positive energy and sense of connection with my great great grandfather.
The sale of the Lawrence Drizen Collection is at Sotheby’s London on 24th September and I urge you to go online to look at the catalogue, the link is:
There are editions of A Christmas Carol ranging from a signed presentation copy (estimate £50,000-£70,000), to first editions (£7,000 – £10,000), to a 10th edition which could be yours for a paltry £700. There is a signed first book edition of David Copperfield available for £90,000, and a printed copy of a speech made in London in 1851 for which you would pay only £40.
As Philip said in his introductory remarks ‘There is something for every pocket!’
Sadly I will not be able to be at the auction, although I would love to attend, but I shall try to follow it online and will pay particular interest to a little volume containing the Mrs Gamp reading.