A Tale of Charles Dickens
Recently, he has popped up in several places I have visited. Charles Dickens, that is. The immortal author, who has contributed significantly to raising the profile of the County of Kent and in particular the towns of Broadstairs, Rochester and Canterbury. It seems I can’t escape him, which is a burden to me and causes me stress. The reason is I desperately want to be a published writer. I need to be a published writer.
But Dickens is haunting me, standing up close, breathing down my neck, constantly in my thoughts, doing my head in. He turns up, unannounced, to remind me that he was a ‘great writer,’ whereas I am a nobody; not one story published despite having written more than a dozen in the last few months.
“The material was interesting, but I didn’t warm to it.”
I received that comment, or something like it, three times, from three agents, who rejected my work. As I read and re-read these remarks, I imagine Charles smiling at me, a wicked smile. Leering in fact. Then I hear him. He is lecturing to me. What a nerve.
“You will have to work harder Alex. Develop your craft. You must take the reader with you from the very beginning of the very first page. It’s no good writing what you want. You have to write what the editors and publishers can sell!”
Patronising git. As if I didn’t know this. I have been on writing courses and read books. ‘How to Achieve Success with Your First Novel,’ stuff like that. I don’t need old Charlie Dickens to put me straight.
But in so many of the places where I recently lived or visited, there he is. He inhabited, or frequented, some of the places familiar to me, and I experience him at all of these locations.
He shows himself in the form of a blue commemorative plaque on a house in North Hill, Highgate, round the corner from my old flat in Southwood Park. I am mesmerised by this plaque every time I pass by to meet Sally for a drink in the local pub. And when I went to Rochester recently he was there too. He lived as a boy at what is now number 11 Ordnance Terrace.
I go to see my brother in the Lake District. Dickens follows me there; for when we go to Allonby, I find out that he visited with Wilkie Collins (he who wrote the Moonstone and the Woman in White). Back in London, Charlie has a plaque on the British Medical Association Building, commemorating his former home in Tavistock Square, and he is also in Canterbury. I have driven to those places. Dickens had no car, no train nor plane, but the guy sure did get around. Must have been by horse I guess.
But the weirdest, the most extraordinary coincidence, is that I am going to live with him. Well not exactly with him, but next to Bleak House in Broadstairs, where he wrote David Copperfield. You see, I was recently extremely lucky to have bought a plot of land adjacent to Bleak House, with planning for a part earth-sheltered dwelling. It will be built in a part of the old orchard, where I am sure Dickens walked, when he lived in “Bleak,” as the present owner calls his home.
The Council—Thanet District Council, to be precise—in their wisdom, didn’t want any new structure spoiling the view of the iconic Bleak House. You can see it from all over Broadstairs, and it has been painted, or photographed, innumerable times. Go into any restaurant, or café, or pub in the town, and I am willing to bet you that there will be an image of Bleak House up there on the wall.
So, to avoid spoiling the view, my new dwelling will be built into the cliff, though there will be a storey above ground too.
The point is, I just have to become a successful writer, and for some inexplicable reason, my life is increasingly bound up with the places associated with Charles Dickens—one of the most famous writers ever! But I keep getting rejections, as if old Charlie is sticking the knife in.
Should I throw in the towel and go back to playing Scrabble with Sally? In Scrabble you have to be good with words. Not the same as writing a great novel though, is it? Perhaps I am taking this Dickens thing too seriously?
As it happens I am made of sterner stuff, and so I rack my brains to come up with an idea, to try to cash in on the Dickens connection.
But the persecution increases. Charlie is everywhere. He has some kind of power over me, and makes me read all of his books. I don’t know how he does it, but he gets me to immerse myself in his life, his times, his writing, his relationships. I am now probably one of the most knowledgeable of Dickens experts. I can’t put him down.
I make friends with the owners of Bleak House and am able to sit in Dickens’ chair, looking at the view of the sea from his ‘airy nest,’ as he called it. I grow a beard and dress in the way he dressed in the photos I saw in the house, or in the books I read about his life. I even join in with others in Broadstairs, during the annual Dickens festival. We all dress up in Victorian gear and parade around the streets. Is that sad, or what? But Charlie wants more. He appears to me and harangues me incessantly about my writing.
“That’s no good Alex. You can’t have the heroine dying in the first third of the story. Who will the reader identify with?”
“Hitchcock did it in Psycho,” I reply. I’m not going to be browbeaten. “The shower sequence. He killed off the heroine early on in the movie. Janet Leigh acted the part. She was slashed to bits by Anthony Perkins, dressed as his mother.”
Of course Charlie Dickens hasn’t got a clue what I’m talking about. He’s never seen Psycho, for sure. Can you imagine what he would make of that movie? Probably flip his lid, or have a heart attack and collapse. I tell you, the world would have had to do without a lot of his great works.
In my obsession with the famous writer, and my own inadequacies, I neglect myself. I don’t realise, but something in my head isn’t right.
But then, before it becomes too late. I have an idea, something positive I can do to redress the situation of me and old Charlie. I sit down and for the first time in ages, I stop reading him, and start writing my own material again. Then I have some inspiration and come up with a new idea. An idea that, given the public appetite for popular musicals, I reckon I could make into a commercial success.
Some months later Sally visits me. I’ve been avoiding her for a while, concentrating on my writing and on exorcising the Dickens creature.
“Alex, is it true?”
“Is what true?” I ask.
“The ad in the Standard. A new play, a musical, based on the life of Charles Dickens, with music by Drew Weaver, written by Alex Peters. You, my dear.”
“Yes, it is true. I finally cracked the market. Something I wrote will be performed on the West End Stage.”
“But a musical, Alex? And from what I read, set in 1950s London, with the Dickens character changed from a writer of novels to a writer of pop music? Don’t you feel that, maybe, you’re reducing one of the greatest influences on our literary heritage to some kind of joke figure?”
“So what if I am?” I respond with a shrug. “Just getting my own back.”
“Getting your own back? What did he ever do to you?”
“He terrorised me, Sally, wouldn’t leave me alone, kept telling me I was a terrible writer, and that I would never make it in the business. He kept following me, popping up most places I went. He invaded my mind. I had enough, and that’s the size of it!”
“So, you are taking revenge on him? Don’t you realise you are seriously unwell, Alex, and your imagination has been playing tricks on you? You need help. You should see a psychotherapist.”
I look at her, a triumphant smile creasing my pale, worn face, a malevolent glint in my eyes. “Ah, but Sally, my dear girl, I don’t give a damn if Mr Self-Important Charlie-Warlie Dickens turns over in his grave when he hears about my musical. How can I become a successful writer unless I have a vivid imagination?”
© 2012 Jeff Laurents
A writer, photographer, and retired ex-head of photography at a London college. Jeff’s short story ‘Tongue Twister’ has been published.