Great-great-grandson’s expectations high for Dickens’ celebration

The Free Library of Philadelphia will be celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens with a visit from the Victorian novelist’s great-great-grandson Gerald Dickens.

The actor, based in Kent, U.K., will re-create his ancestor’s famously theatrical readings.

Before Charles Dickens became a novelist, he flirted with acting, a vocation that never materialized. Later in life, he was able to hone his chops on book tours, where he would rewrite passages of his own books into scripts, and perform them in character. His performances were legendary, particularly in America.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Now, 142 years after his ancestor’s death, Gerald Dickens had made a career of performing those same scripts. This weekend he will at Byers’ Choice Ltd., a manufacturer of “A Christmas Carol” figurines in Bucks County. Next Tuesday Dickens will perform at the Free Library’s Central Branch.

Dickens does not impersonate his great-great-grandfather, but walks in his footsteps through his portrayal of the fictional characters.

“He was an amazing mimic,” said Gerald of the elder Dickens. “He was able to drop into characters at the flick of his fingers. Old, young, male, female, whatever it might be — and his ability to change his facial expression, the way he stood, what he did with his hands.”

Toasting Dickens with song and drink

Revelers in Philadelphia can also indulge in an historically accurate pub crawl. On Monday, National Mechanics in Old City will be serving up a hot port (Negus) and a mulled ale (Purl) as featured in “A Christmas Carol,” as well as choruses of Victorian drinking songs. Other Old City taverns will host similar sessions in the coming months.

Philadelphia has unique ties to Charles Dickens. In addition to the original artifacts and manuscripts held at the Free Library, one of only two public statues in the world depicting Dickens is in Clark Park in West Philadelphia. The other is in Australia.

Scholars and Dickens’ surviving family have always resisted efforts to create public statues, citing the author’s will, which states that no monuments, memorials, or testimony be erected after his death.

“Actually what he was talking about in that part of his will was his funeral arrangements,” said Gerald Dickens. “He didn’t want it to be ostentatious, he didn’t want it to be big, and he didn’t want one of those awful Victorian, gothic monuments that they loved putting up in cemeteries in London at that time, which is horrendous.”

The younger Dickens is now fundraising to erect a “sympathetic” statue to his ancestor in Portsmouth, the author’s birthplace. Gerald says it will be similar in tone to the “Little Nell” statue in Clark Park.


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal