This year marks 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens, the great Victorian author who bequeathed the world such literary masterpieces as “Great Expectations,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Adventures of Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol.” And the British novelist is being feted in Philadelphia this weekend, around a statue of him in Clark Park.
The Charles Dickens Birthday Party in West Philadelphia starts today, Sunday, Feb. 5th, at 2 p.m. at Griffith Hall at University of the Sciences, across the street from Clark Park at 43rd and Kingsessing. It features readings from Dickens’ best-loved novels, period costume and music and dance performances, as well as a birthday cake and a procession to the Clark Park statue of Dickens to sing “him” Happy Birthday. The statue is a special source of pride for Philadelphia’s Dickens fans, as it stood for more than a century as the only sculpted likeness of the celebrated author in the world.
Dickens visited Philadelphia when he was 30, and wrote dispatches for his British audience about the city and especially its then-new and experimental Eastern Penitentiary, the Quakers’ contribution to modernizing incarceration. Dickens liked the city more than he did the prison he visited.
Of the city, he wrote, “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.” Which may be the last time anyone has lamented that Philadelphia isn’t “crooked” enough.
He wrote, “Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off, everywhere,” and celebrated “The Waterworks,” which showered the city with fresh water and was then and now a tourist attraction and monument to forward thinking among Philadelphia’s forefathers when it comes to public health.
Dickens’ 1842 conclusion was “My stay in Philadelphia was very short, but what I saw of its society, I greatly liked.”
But the Quakers’ innovation in incarceration? He hated it, believing the solitary imprisonment practiced at Eastern Penitentiary to be worse than physical torture.
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
What, you still want to know more about Dickens? This Reuters’ article is a nice introduction.