The 7th February was Charles Dickens’ 210th birthday and such is the enormity of his enduring legacy I have been involved in celebrating the event for an entire week. These are the accounts of the various events that I have attended
Rochester Guildhall. Wednesday 2 February
My first journey was to the county of Kent, and specifically to Rochester, on the 2nd February. Rochester is the town most closely associated with Charles Dickens and the ancient buildings feature in many of his novels, including the first (The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club), and the last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Although he never actually lived in Rochester, his home at Gad’s Hill Place was nearby, and today the streets are a Mecca for those who love his books and revere him.
Rochester used to be a city in its own right, but lost the status a number of years ago, eventually amalgamating into the larger unitary authority of Medway, but for me and, I suspect most Dickensians, it will always be the City of Rochester. For a long time there was a Dickens visitor attraction built in Eastgate House, which also features in the first and last novels. One would walk through various rooms, each of which had a brilliantly designed and built theatrical set, with various projections, voiceovers and animatronics to bring the scenes to life, and it was an impressive venue for Dickens fans to visit, but unfortunately the historic fabric of the old house couldn’t sustain the daily tramp of visitors and the attraction had to be closed down, which left the City of Rochester with nothing to present to the fans who came from all over the world. Until last week!
At the opposite end of the High Street from Eastgate House is the Guildhall Museum, which tells the entire history of Medway, and for over two years (interrupted by the pandemic) the Council have been planning and constructing a new permanent exhibit to Charles Dickens, called ‘The Making of Dickens’ which was due to be officially opened on the 2nd February. I was contacted by the Council, thanks to the influence of my brother, Ian, with a request to read a short passage from Great Expectations to a VIP guest, who would be performing the opening ceremony. The identity of the guest was at this time unknown, but as the council had originally approached the actress Miriam Margoyles (a major VIP in her own right) to perform the reading, we guessed that the VIP must be very important indeed and soon this was confirmed when the emails began to refer to the VIP in bold type). With Miriam being out of the country, the search for a reader settled on me, and arrangements were made, and still the identity of our VIP was unknown due to security concerns, and so it became apparent that we would be in the presence of royalty. Who, though? The front runner in the ‘Guess The Royal’ stakes was Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as she has long celebrated and championed the written and spoken word, and is a patron of various charities promoting literacy. Before Christmas she and The Prince of Wales had read passages from A Christmas Carol for a series of videos made by the Charles Dickens Museum, and the fact that a day or two before the event I had a message saying that she (yes, the council let the pronoun slip through the net) would like to share the reading, strengthened my suspicions further.
On the morning of the 2nd I dropped our girls to school and then got on the road for the 2 hour drive to Kent. I was dressed in a suit, but had my costume with me also. The team at The Guildhall had asked for me to be in Victorian attire, and the suit was merely an insurance policy in case I hit traffic and was running late.
Rochester and the Guildhall are both very familiar to me, as I have been performing there since I started my Dickens shows in 1994. Indeed the first reading I ever gave (after my initial performance of A Christmas Carol in December ’93) was in the Guildhall itself, when I read a passage of Nicholas Nickleby to the local Dickens Fellowship branch. Each Summer I return to the city for the Dickens Festival and the beautiful main chamber of the building has been my permanent venue for many years, and it was in that main chamber that I was to read with Camill…..with the VIP.
It was during my journey down that an email came in confirming that the guest was indeed the Duchess of Cornwall, and that I would be briefed on the procedures and protocol when I arrived.
At 12.30 I walked through the door and The Guildhall looked spic and span ready for it Royal visit. To be perfectly honest, it is always in an immaculate condition, and mounting the great staircase makes one feel as if you are in a palace. I was greeted by Ed Woollard who was coordinating the day’s events, and he quickly ran through the timetable with me: At 1.30 a party of thirty school children from the nearby St Margarets at Troy Town school would arrive, and would gather in the Grand Chamber, where I would be also, to await the Duchess. At 2 o’clock The Duchess of Cornwall would arrive and be greeted by costumes characters, supplied by the local Dickens Fellowship branch (of which I am proud to be president.). She would then be taken up to the new exhibit and be shown around by various Council officials and dignitaries, before making her way into the chamber at 2.30, where I and one of the teachers from the school would greet her (these Royals get greeted a lot!). I should address her as ‘Your Royal Highness’ at first and as ‘Ma’am’ subsequently. We would walk to our chairs at the front of the room and following a brief welcome by a member of the council, I would introduce our reading, setting the scene so to speak, and then invite Camilla to begin.
When all was firmly in my mind I went to change into my Victorian costume and when I returned Ed showed me around the exhibition, which is very impressive. Although built in what used to be a rather square, featureless room the designers had made remarkable use of the space by guiding the visitor past a mock up of Charles’ childhood home in Chatham, through a theatre where you can sit and watch a holographic actor portraying Dickens at his reading desk (NOT ME!), and then along a walkway where large panels cause you to stop and look up to read about his journalism, Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. At the end of the walkway you suddenly find yourself in a town square with a store front, which contains some Dickens memorabilia . This square is a good space and will be used by the educational officer at the museum to talk to students. From the square you pass through a door into a recreation of Dickens’s study at Gad’s Hill Place with his desk in the bay window. For the Royal visit Charles’ walking cane and letter opener had been laid on the desk, but these will be tucked into a display case during normal opening hours. I suggested that the chair be pulled out from the desk slightly, to recreate the famous picture of the study sketched on the day after Dickens died: The Empty Chair.
At the end of the exhibition is a map showing all of the local sites associated with Charles Dickens and encouraging visitors to explore the wider region.
I walked through the exhibit again, this time with a photographer in tow, and I posed in each of the rooms, until he had all of the shots he needed (I think he was actually slightly practicing for the Royal walk-through, making sure that light and angles were correct – In effect I was Camilla’s stunt double).
Initial duties done I returned to the Chamber and the school children duly arrived and took off their coats. Together we had an hour to wait, so my job now was to keep them entertained. The students were from Year 5, meaning that they were 9 and 10 years old, and although they were due to study Great Expectations later in the year, they hadn’t yet. Information about the visit had come very late and the teachers had spent one afternoon cramming some basic knowledge about author and text into the young brains. So, when I asked if anyone had any questions about Charles Dickens, the floodgates opened! We had a wonderful time, for the more they asked the more curious they became. After their greeting duties outside, the costumes characters from The Fellowship came into the room, and then the children had fun guessing who was which character.
The imminent arrival of The Duchess interrupted out wonderful session and I took my place at the door where Camilla was introduced to me. I said ‘good afternoon’ remembering to slightly bow my head and add ‘Your Royal Highness’. I mentioned to her that I had thoroughly enjoyed her A Christmas Carol readings, and she seemed genuinely pleased that I had not only seen them but remembered them.
We walked to the front of the room and took our seats. As I had been in the room for so long, and had performed in it so many times before, I felt incredibly at ease, as if it was my own domain and I was welcoming Camilla into it, and in the photographs taken on the day I certainly look very relaxed, while she looks slightly nervous at the prospect of reading.
The children were welcomed by the Council member who was escorting The Duchess, and then he handed over to me to introduce the reading. The passage chosen (not by me, incidentally) was one from early in Great Expectations when Pip is attending a very basic school kept my Mr Wosple’s great aunt (‘…who went to sleep between the hours of six and seven each evening, in the society of youth who payed her twoppence a week for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it’).
I am not sure if the school children fully followed what was going on but when we got to the end they applauded politely. Now it was time for questions, and four children sat in the front row clearly and confidently read theirs out. The nice thing about this was that the questions hadn’t been submitted prior to the event, so that the Duchess’s answers were completely genuine.
1: ‘What is your favourite Charles Dickens book and character?’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities and The Artful Dodger’
2: Why is it so important to read books by authors like Charles Dickens?’ ‘Because their use of language is so beautiful and authors like Dickens tell such wonderful stories. Also, we have so much to learn from the past.’
3: ‘How do you find time to read books in your busy day?’ ‘It is very difficult. Sometimes I try to read in bed, but fall asleep and cant remember what Ive read, so end up reading the same passage the next night and over and over again! I try to save up all of the books that I want to read for holidays, at Christmas or Easter, and read them when we are away.’
4: ‘Where did you get your love of reading and books?’ ‘When I was a little girl my father used to sit on the end of my bed and read stories, and I have always loved the memories of those times’
These answers are paraphrased, but the gist is correct and it was during this time that Camilla was at her happiest and most relaxed. Next on the itinerary was the unveiling of the plaque, which will eventually be on the wall of the exhibition, but for the moment was mounted on a board set on an easel. The staff were very worried that the whole affair would collapse when she pulled the little string to draw back the blue velvet curtain, and Ed was gripping tightly on to the whole structure as she performed her duty. Fortunately disaster did not ensue!
And that marked the end of the visit and with three cheers ringing in her ears, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, left the building to be driven to another venue where she would be greeted again, and shake more hands, and smile and be gracious. In the Guildhall chamber you could almost hear the gasp of relief and everyone relaxed. I said goodbye to the school children and offered to come into their school to talk more about Charles Dickens. The costumed characters and I went around the exhibition and again, until gradually we all drifted away to our homes.
On Tuesday 2 February I had driven a round trip of 4 hours and read from Great Expectations for 2 minutes, but it was a very special day for all of us present. Also it shows how large Charles Dickens still looms over our society, to attract a Royal visit to honour his memory is quite a thing.
Just 2 days after our event it was announced by The Queen that it was her sincere wish that Camilla be known as Queen Consort when Charles takes the throne. It seems obvious to me that The Queen felt that if Camilla could hold her own reading with a Dickens, then she had proved that she was ready for anything. To quote Abel Magwitch: ‘It was me what done it!’