Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Dickens Day approaches

We never tire of the friendships we form with books,” said Charles Dickens. HOT’s Sam Davey agrees, and looks forward to welcoming one of the world’s leading Dickens experts who will be giving a talk here on Dickens Day, Thursday 7 April.

The first books I truly fell in love with were Jane Pilgrim’s Blackberry Farm books – a gentle, anthropomorphic collection of tales set on a farm in rural Leicestershire, in which mice get married and walk “tail in tail” through the cornfields, and the local owl sets up a school to teach the young farm creatures the rules of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

I was about four years old, and as yet unable to read for myself, so my reading horizons were very much boundaried by parental choice. It wasn’t long however, before I was able to read – and therefore choose – for myself.

Initially I read widely and without discrimination, walking to school with my head in a book, my knees always bloody or covered in scabs from the tumbles I took because I was rarely watching where I was going. I fell in love time and time again; the Famous Five (particularly Timmy), the Twins at Mallory Towers, Just William, Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, Moomin, Snufkin and the Snork Maiden. They were as real to me as the children I went to school with – and to be honest, they often seemed to be kinder, funnier and far more interesting.

When I was eleven, my aunt gave me three rather different books; Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and a beautifully illustrated version of David Copperfield by the master himself, Charles Dickens. When my mother saw these treasures, she instantly confiscated the Carter (on the grounds it was totally unsuitable for my pre-adolescent mind) and the Austen (because I wouldn’t be able to understand it). The Dickens was a different matter. I remember her picking it up, turning it in her hands and sniffing rather contemptuously. “I can’t be doing with Dickens” she said. “Boring. Too many words”. And with that, she put the book down on my bed and left me to it.

Now I have always been (and still am) of a contrary disposition, and so this was a challenge that I would not ignore. I read the book from cover to cover, and although it contained words and names I had no idea how to pronounce – Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep and Pegotty, I became entranced by the rhythms of the language. The words intoxicated me and I was hooked. Since then, I have loved Dickens and have found nothing but joy in reading and re-reading his novels. I have my favourites – Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and, of course David Copperfield. And there are those I like less – Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit. These are my personal choices – and I’m sure that another Dickensian would disagree – and I have no issue with that.

The characters Dickens created have entered our cultural universe – Scrooge, Oliver, Bill Sykes, Little Nell – their names and stories are known far and wide – and you don’t need to have read the books to have fallen under their spell. It was because of the universal power of Dickens’ stories and his characters that I was delighted to be involved in planning a Dickens Day as a one-off Hastings Literary Festival Event.

On April 7th we are welcoming to Hastings one of the world’s greatest experts on Charles Dickens – John Mullan, Northcliffe Professor of Modern Literature at University College London. John will be talking about his book The Artful Dickens – a book which begins with the question: “well what is so great about Dickens?” and proceeds to provide us with a solid, entertaining and often humorous answer. As Howard Jacobson said: “Even if you know a lot about Dickens you will find revelations in it, and if you know nothing about Dickens and want to learn what makes him great, it will be the perfect appetiser”.

John’s talk, which takes place at 15.00 at St Mary in the Castle – is free to students – and tickets are available at:

Following on from John’s talk, there will be an affectionately anarchic performance of Great Expectations by the wonderful (and irreverent) Pantaloons.

Tickets (including concessions) are available from:

My life has been enriched by the friendships I have found within the pages of Dickens – and I really hope that Dickens Day may enable others to do the same.

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Posted 20:53 Sunday, Apr 3, 2022 In: Arts News

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