Last month I had a brush with literary history. I had lunch with Gerald Dickens, the great, great grandson of the famous author, Charles Dickens who was born in Portsmouth in 1812 and whose 200th anniversary occurs on the 7th February. Dickens was the first true literary superstar, his books became instant classics and he was the foremost writer and public celebrity of the 19th Century.
Gerald was in Kilkenny to perform his one-man show A Christmas Carol in Kyteler’s Inn. I met Gerald Dickens through his sister, Nicky Flynn, who joined us for lunch. Nicky owns and runs Kyteler’s Inn, once home to the infamous witch, Dame Alice Kyteler. That Nicky is a great, great granddaughter of Charles Dickens is perhaps one of Kilkenny’s best kept secrets.
I ask them both what they might say to their illustrious ancestor if they could meet him face to face. Nicky, who has always been extremely low-key about her relationship to the great author, says she’d probably say nothing and would more than likely be dumbstruck in the presence of the great man.
Gerald, actor and performer that he is, reckons he would ask Dickens how he prepared for the powerful readings he gave throughout Britain, Ireland and the United States, readings that frequently left audiences ‘shrieking and weeping and fainting’. Gerald reminds me that Dickens also read in Ireland – in the Imperial Hotel in Cork, Cruises Hotel in Limerick and Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin.
There were no tears or fainting at Gerald Dickens’s performance of A Christmas Carol but the man was superb. Scrooge, Bob Cratchit. Mrs. Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, Gerald, using an array of accents, gestures and facial expressions brought them vividly to life on stage. With just an armchair, walking-stick, top-hat and stool for props he brought us through the streets of London, the offices of Scrooge & Marley, the Cratchit kitchen, the local cemetery and numerous other locations.
Gerald has been performing the works of his great, great grandfather for several decades. When I ask him if there is a particular performance that stands out he tells me that, like many actors, he tends to remember the not so successful performances more but as he ponders my question he remembers a show in Boston, in the very hall that Charles Dickens himself performed in, that proved particularly emotional for him.
Gerald Dickens is not at all unlike his great, great grandfather in looks and physique, especially on stage when decked out in waist coat and top hat. Nicky readily confesses that she doesn’t look at all like her famous ancestor, not least because she doesn’t have a beard.
Nicky and Gerald are descended from Henry Dickens – the eight child of Charles and Catherine’s family of ten children. “Just think Henry V111”, Gerald says. Henry was not literary but became a top lawyer in London and was knighted in 1922.
Gerald tells me about a character his great grandfather Henry was sentencing in court. The rogue in question was unimpressed by the long sentence he received, and knowing that the judge’s father, Charles Dickens, had a soft spot for society’s rejects, said, “Your Lordship I have read some of your father’s work and he would never be so hard on me”. “My good man”, replied His Lordship, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, “You will now have time to read ALL of my father’s works”
As a child Charles Dickens had a performance personality and could tap-dance and sing; he also loved acting and the theatre and Gerald points out that we might never had the wonderful stories and novels but for the fact that Charles missed an audition for a London theatre group due to illness. Indeed as an adult Dickens suffered from terrible head colds, a condition not helped, perhaps by his restless energy that frequently found him walking the streets of London, in the middle of the night, for hours at a time.
As for their favourite Dickens book or character – Nicky opts for A Christmas Carol and Tiny Tim while Gerald gives the nod to Great Expectations and tends to prefer the villains, in particular Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. And as an aside Gerald talked about a little known work of Dickens – The Life of Our Lord, a series of parables he wrote for his children.
Charles Dicken’s was born in Portsmouth on 7th February 1812 and the 200th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated there with the unveiling of a towering bronze statue of the man. Nicky Flynn, great, great granddaughter of the great author will be in Portsmouth for the ceremony.
Charles Dickens died suddenly on 9th June 1870, aged 58, while writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, London where Gerald will attend a wreath-laying ceremony this coming Tuesday 7th February.