Every Wednesday evening between March and October, Charles Dickens visits the house he made an early London home. He must have great affection for it. Oliver Twist was born here; so were Dickens’ two eldest daughters.
At 7:30 p.m., the lights in the basement library are dimmed, and a long-haired actor in full Victorian dress strides through the open door, marches towards a burgundy-coloured velvet armchair, and regales his “guests,” their “glasses charged” (a sideboard in the lower hallway is set with a selection of red and white wines, included in the price of admission), with a discourse on Dickens’ life and work. Crossing scholarly bridges written by the Museum’s curator, the actor enters Dickens’ tales and inhabits his characters, just as the legendary novelist did during his renowned literary readings over 150 years ago. The effect of sipping a flinty, straw-coloured Bordeaux while watching the performance is magical. “Dickens” is spotlighted by his director discreetly operating a miniature light panel in the back of the library, the actor’s animated face reflected, like Marley’s ghost, against the glassed-in shelves protecting priceless first editions. A row of high, rectangular windows overlook the grey-stoned streets of Camden Town. As The Sparkler of Albion dramatizes the death of Little Nell, one recalls that Mary Hogarth died in a side wing of this house. Spooks rise, spirits howl, apparitions materialize and fade away; no actor has ever had a more accommodating set.
Over my desk, there is a reproduction of a painting that hangs in the upstairs study of the Dickens House Museum. It has accompanied me wherever I’ve lived. I’d grown up pining over the posters in BOAC display windows. During school holidays, I’d go to New York to catch the British imports on Broadway. I saw Emlyn Williams as “Dickens.” Anthony Hopkins kissed me in a coffee shop, in 1975. On my seventeenth birthday, Alan Bates signed his autograph in a just-bought addition to Shaw’s voluminous correspondence. At first Bates protested, “Shaaaw?! I cawn’t write on Shaaaw!” But he did. My most fervent adolescent dream was to become a great “Dame” of the British theatre. In early adulthood I went to London twice within six months. I made the shortlist of a major drama school. Fate intervened. It took six hours, and several decades, to fly back. When I did, I returned to Doughty Street to take another look at the original painting; Dickens is sitting in his study near his desk, his eyes closed, surrounded by the phantoms of his characters. The portrait is sketched, but not fully realized. It’s called Dickens’ Dream, and it’s unfinished. Whether the unfinished dream is Dickens’ vision, or the vision of the artist, is the spectator’s guess.
When I returned to London to lay my unfinished dream to rest, the old souvenir led me back to the Museum, which led to the discovery of the one-man show in the Museum’s library, which led to an invitation by the Toronto-born producer and director to join him, “Dickens,” and their mates, in a neighbourhood pub, which led to being signed in as their guest at the private Garrick Club on Piccadilly, which led to a dinner invitation by an actress at her Kensington flat.
I was given a glimpse of an alternative destiny, and returned home satisfied and at peace with myself as an obscure Canadian writer.