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“He was a twinkling-eyed, pimple-faced man, with his hair standing upright all over his head; and as he stood with one arm a-kimbo, holding up the glass to the light with the other hand, he looked quite friendly.” —David Copperfield

Among the artwork on display at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is “Boy in a Dining Car.” The painting, which depicts a youngster (the artist’s son) calculating a waiter’s tip for the first time, was inspired by H.K. Browne’s illustration of a scene in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Rockwell’s work, which appeared on the cover of the December 7, 1946, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, is a decidedly more serious take on David Copperfield’s eatery encounter. The Dickens’ title character is en route to a school in London when the coach in which he’s traveling stops for lunch at an inn, and a seemingly friendly waiter ends up enjoying the meal he’s serving to his young customer.

Dickens was Rockwell’s favorite author, an affinity that extended back to his childhood. A Sunday family tradition was listening to his father read the British scribes’ entertaining tales.

Charles Dickens made headlines this month after two of his novels, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, were chosen as selections for Oprah Winfrey’s high-profile book club. Whether or not you plan to read along with Oprah, here are a few ways to get into the Dickens spirit this month in London, New York, and Washington, D.C.

CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS VICTORIAN-STYLE

The Charles Dickens Museum in London is going all out with holiday festivities, including events on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Stop by to see the house decked in greenery and decorations as described by the writer and enjoy mulled wine and minced pies, learn about Victorian Christmas traditions, listen to readings of Dickens’ tales, and more. Charity readings of A Christmas Carol will take place at 6:30 p.m. tonight and on December 21. Visit DickensMuseum.com for details on times and ticket prices.

MARVEL AT A CHRISTMAS CAROL’S MOMENT OF CREATION

Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Mr. Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit, the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the other colorful characters in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were created during a six-week flurry of activity in late 1843. The manuscript, which Dickens had bound in red Moroccan leather and presented as a gift to his solicitor, was acquired by financier Pierpont Morgan in the 1800s. The spectacular volume is put on display each year during the holiday season at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Also on view is the first edition A Christmas Carol (1843), open to the title page and an engraved, hand-colored  frontispiece of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball (at left). See Dickens’ handiwork through January 9, 2001. TheMorgan.org

WATCH THE DRAMA UNFOLD

A Christmas Carol is being staged at “America’s most famous theatre” in Washington, D.C. until January 2, 2011. Showgoers can catch a performance of Charles Dickens’ spirited tale at Ford’s Theatre and also extend some generosity to those in need. The theatre has partnered with So Others Might Eat, an interfaith, community-based organization in D.C. that offers assistance to the homeless such as housing and job training. At curtain calls during the production’s run, cast members are collecting monetary donations. Tiny Tim would be proud. FordsTheatre.org

[photos top to bottom © Oprah.com, Flickr/Matt From London, Dickens Museum, Morgan Library & Museum, and Ford’s Theatre]

The long-lost tombstone of a cartoonist who killed himself after a young Charles Dickens ousted him from The Pickwick Papers project has been found.

Robert Seymour was one of the most prominent illustrators of the early 19th century but ended up an unfortunate footnote in Dickens’s career.

His name is set to be restored to prominence when the Charles Dickens Museum unveils a commemorative plaque and puts his tombstone on display next week.

The stone was discovered by Stephen Jarvis, who is researching a biography of Seymour, in a giant collection of tombstones in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene Church in the London borough of Islington.

Mr. Jarvis said: “Everybody said the tombstone was missing.” Even church regulars thought it had probably been destroyed. But Mr Jarvis found a single line reference to the church’s crypt in papers at the Islington local history centre and went to investigate. After hours of trawling by torchlight through “thousands of tombstones that were just crumbling away in this spooky church crypt,” his wife, Elaine, spotted the 4ft-high stone. They have spent the past four years seeking permission from the Church of England to move it to the Dickens museum, where it will be unveiled next Tuesday. 

Mr. Jarvis hopes it will restore the name of Seymour, who dreamt up the idea of a new monthly serial, the Nimrod Club, with sporting illustrations linked with sketches. A young Dickens, then writing as Boz, was approached by publishers to write and insisted on taking control of the project. The Nimrod Club became the Pickwick Club of The Pickwick Papers and propelled Dickens to international fame. But his success came at a price for Seymour.

Two days after visiting Dickens at home in April 1836, distressed that his idea had been usurped, Seymour was found dead: he had shot himself after completing a final Pickwick drawing. His widow claimed Dickens had effectively murdered him.

Mr. Jarvis said: “Everyone benefits from The Pickwick Papers apart from Robert Seymour, whose family was reduced to poverty by his suicide. Yet here was a man who was almost certainly the most prolific cartoonist of his time, the Shakespeare of caricature’. His tombstone is an incredibly resonant object.”

scan0103The past two weeks have been busy ones at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, where I am lucky enough to be a part-time volunteer. Coinciding with Bastille Day, Tuesday marked the opening of our new exhibit, “Shadow of the Guillotine,” which celebrates  the 150th anniversary of the publication of A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel set in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution.  To kick off the exhibit, we held a private viewing for the French Ambassador, who spoke movingly of the bloody Reign of Terror and also pointed out the ongoing relevancy of the novel’s opening line (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”)

The book was one of only two historical novels penned by Dickens (the other being the not-very-well-known tale Barnaby Rudge) and the idea for the book came about in part from a  play he co-wrote and performed with Wilkie Collins called The Frozen Deep. In the play, a deeply flawed but courageous man sacrifices his life to save the life of his rival. Dickens’ other influence was Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume text, The French Revolution: A History. As Dickens wrote in the preface to his novel, “It has been one of my hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle’s wonderful book.”

Among the many historic objects the museum will have on display during the course of the exhibit, which runs through December, are first editions, lithographs of the novel’s original illustrations by Phiz, and a stunning oil painting by Victorian painter, E.M. Ward, which depicts the final hours of the French royal family imprisoned in the Temple (a medieval fortress once located in Paris’ 3rd arrondissment.) If you’re planning a visit to London in the next six months, do stop by the museum to check out our new exhibit! –Joni Rendon

BroadstairsCharles Dickens’s former summer home, dubbed “Bleak House,” has recently been put up for sale for £2 million. (Click here to see the listing for the house, which has six-bedrooms, a sea-facing study, as well as a music room, gymnasium and substantial gardens.) It also retains some original features including a mahogany staircase and fireplaces. The contents of the study, including a desk that may have been used by Dickens to pen David Copperfield, are up for sale under a separate negotiation.

The cliff-top mansion in the coastal town of Broadstairs, Kent, was home to the author during the summers of 1849, 1850 and 1851 when he was working on David Copperfield.  The name “Bleak House” is actually a misnomer given to the house long after Dickens’s death in 1870–it was not the original mansion on which that book was based, which is believed to be located in St Albans, Hertfordshire. He did, however, begin formulating the story for Bleak House (considered by some to be his best novel) while living in the house, which he described lovingly as his “airy nest.” Built in 1801 as the residence of a Napoleonic Wars-era fort commander,  the house was known as Fort House during Dickens’ time.

The coastal town of Broadstairs, which he called “our English watering place,” is proud of its Dickens connections, boasting three more addresses where the writer stayed on his breaks from London. The original Betsey Trotwood, Copperfield’s great-aunt, is said to have lived at a house in the town which is now known as Dickens House Museum. –Joni Rendon

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