Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Birthday Party at the Family Grave

"Lord and Giver of life... we praise thee for Charles Dickens whose birth we commemorate today."

Amen to that, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens! Charles Dickens, who died from a stroke mid-way through Edwin Drood, would have been 200 today. His wish was for a small, private funeral at Rochester Cathedral; what he got was a three-day public procession through Westminster Abbey. Well, writers and their work belong to the public, and as the Dean of Westminster said during a wreath-laying ceremony on Tuesday, the Abbey is the family grave of the nation.

So there he lies, snugly nestled between Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, with the ghosts of Miss Havisham, Mowgli and Tess of the D'Urbervilles wafting overhead.
Jessica, my editor, kindly took me to the wreath-laying ceremony along with Ben Wood, whose debut novel, The Bellwether Revivals, has just been published. I'm sure Ben drew as much comfort as I did from the prayer. Apart from praising the Lord for making Dickens, it included a rather sweet and encouraging nod to writers everywhere:

"Let us pray for those today who seek to express the truths of creation through the arts; for novelists and playwrights, for actors and directors, for poets and prophets, for commentators and columnists, and all those who record our own age." 

It's not every day that you hear yourself prayed for right under the soaring stone arches of the nation's family grave, with sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. Ben and I mentally added a prayer for our editor: it's only fair.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke beautifully about the exuberance of Dickens' novels and characters (in that there's an exuberance even to his villains, and the thing he most mourns about the life of the poor is that their lives are flat, bereft of that exuberance). Two of Dickens' great-great-grandsons read extracts from The Life of Our Lord and St Luke's gospel, and biographer Claire Tomalin warmed up the chilly Abbey with a passage from a letter to Dickens' sister Fanny in which he describes calming his nerves before a public event with "a pint of champagne and a pint of sherry". That's the spirit!
Prince Charles laid the wreath.
Shakepeare sent his birthday wishes, too

It was all very moving and festive, but nothing could rival Ralph Fiennes' reading of a scene from Bleak House. It was the one where poor Jo... hmm, I don't want to spoil it in case you haven't read it. Anyway, you know when you read a bedtime story to a child and you try to do all the different voices? Well, Fiennes did all the voices, and did them so well that we all began to melt and sniffle at Jo's pitiful end (ok, I'm spoiling it a bit, but you knew it was going to be sad, right?).

"... 'Jo, can you say what I say?'

'I'll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it's good.'


'Our Father! - Yes, that's wery good, sir.'


'Art in Heaven - is the light a comin, sir?'

'It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!'

'Hallowed be - thy - '

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day."

Some readers can't bear Dickens' sentimentalism, but I think he showed a lot of courage in combining his wit and sarcasm, his delight in the absurd, with a pint or two of sentimentality. So I'll hope you'll celebrate Oliver, David, Fagin, Jarndyce and Jarndyce and Little Nell today, and as my editor said during our post-ceremony lunch: here's to passion and compassion.

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