Alycia Smith-Howard: A Dickens of a good story

PUBLISHED: 16:02 26 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:57 20 February 2013

Alycia Smith-Howard: A Dickens of a good story

Alycia Smith-Howard: A Dickens of a good story

If it hadn't been for the efforts of Charles Dickens, the birthplace of Shakespeare might have ended up on an Idaho roadside, says Alycia Smith-Howard.

Alycia Smith-Howard: A Dickens of a good story

If it hadnt been for the efforts of Charles Dickens, the birthplace of Shakespeare might have ended up on an Idaho roadside, says Alycia Smith-Howard.

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is! Merry Wives of Windsor.

The strongest recollection I have of studying Charles Dickens at school is the fact, shared by our battle-weary English teacher, this revered, serialised, Victorian writer was paid by the word. This, she added, was the reason his novels were so lengthy and exhausting. From that moment, my admiration was tempered with more than a little resentment.

My resentment has cooled over the years, and due to some recent discoveries, my view of Dickens, whose bicentenary is being celebrated this month, has shifted considerably. I have found that there is much to admire about Dickens, beyond his being the hand that penned A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations.

Dickens was a great lover of Shakespeare. And, like so many tourists and literary lovers today, Dickens first came to Warwickshire (in 1838) in search of Shakespeare. For Dickens, Shakespeare was the great master who knew everything, whose plays were an unspeakable source of delight. Dickenss novels are full of quotations, references and allusions to Shakespeare.

Dickenss appreciation of Shakespeare went well beyond the page, however. In 1848, Dickens busied himself with the London Shakespeare Committee a group instrumental in the purchase of Shakespeares birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Almost unimaginably, the Shakespeare family homestead was put up for sale in 1847 for the sum of 3,000 - a princely amount that would have the spending worth of over 300,000 today. This priceless property caught the eye of American entrepreneur and showman, P.T. Barnum, who had serious intentions of buying the place and having it shipped to the United States. Dickens and his chums rallied the great and good of Victorian society to keep Shakespeares birthplace as a national treasure in Warwickshire.

The Library and Archive that Dickens helped to establish holds a number of items revealing his lifelong dedication to Shakespeare. One is a poster for an amateur production of Ben Jonsons comedy, Every Man in His Humour, presented at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, in May 1848. The play was produced in aid of endowing a perpetual curatorship for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection. Dickens directed and stage-managed the production.

The other is a letter, dated April 1864, bound in a collection of the letters of the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, 1863-1864. This bound volume is a virtual Whos Who of Victorian leading lights united in the Shakespeare cause. Dickenss note, written in a florid and spirally hand, is in reply to an invitation to attend a banquet in Stratford-upon-Avon. The committee, having accomplished their great mission, was celebrating its remarkable success. Dickens was unable to attend, but his dedication to the committee and its efforts was undeniable.

As a Shakespeare scholar who has virtually worn a path down Henley Street to the Library and Archive at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I cannot imagine life without that wonderful place, and all that it holds and means. I shudder to think it very nearly became a roadside attraction in Idaho! Clearly, I owe Mr. Dickens a debt of thanks.


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