Dickens on a Sunday Afternoon
by Anthony Chase
Ann Colley was already planning a public reading from the work of Charles Dickens when she realized that 2012 marks the bicentennial of his birth.
“The idea started a couple of years ago when Chris Kelly, the local director, was taking one of my classes,” explains the well-known authority on Victorian literature and SUNY Distinguished Professor, who is a member of the English Department faculty at Buffalo State College. “Chris invited some local actors into the class to act out the two endings that Dickens wrote for Great Expectations. A reader had convinced Dickens that his original ending was too depressing, so he wrote an alternative ending. The reading was marvelous, and I suggested then and there that we should expand the idea for a larger audience. The bicentennial provided an occasion.”
The planned reading will take place this Sunday, March 25 at 2pm, in the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery. Among those who will read are actors Megan Callahan, Morgan Chard, Wendy Hall, Jimmy Janowski, John Kaczorowski, Patrick Moltane, Vincent O’Neill, Adam Rath, Eric Rawski, Doug Weyand, and Katie White. This writer will serve as narrator.
The event will include passages from Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other Dickens works.
Dickens was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era and his fame took him on tours of his own where he would read from his books. His travels included a sold-out engagement in Buffalo in March 1868.
“One of the things that is so wonderful about Dickens,” Colley says, “is that he gives us a window into Victorian life. He wrote about a wide range of people, rich and poor, and he allows you to experience that in a way that makes you feel that you are really there. His characters and situations are so vivid.”
Colley’s own passion for Victorian literature began when she was a girl growing up in Northern England.
“I realized that I was inheriting the Victorian era from my parents, grandparents, and their generation,” she observes, “and that this way of life was fading away. I had one particularly vivid Miss Havisham experience,” notes Colley, making reference to one of Dickens’s most memorable and eccentric characters from Great Expectations.
“My father was a minister, and when you are a minister, you interact with people of all social classes. There was a very wealthy woman in our town, Miss Phillips, and one day I was taken to her house for a visit. She put a wooden Noah’s Ark on the floor and instructed me to ‘play.’”
Colley laughs at the memory.
“She lived in a spectacular house with a coachman and servants,” says Colley, “but she had no electricity!”
“Now, of course, a superhighway cuts across what was once the expanse of her grand estate,” she laments. “More recently, I went to the art museum in Leeds and I thought I recognized some of the sculptures. I said, ‘Those are from Miss Phillips’s conservatory!’ I checked, and I was right!”
While the complex and socially nuanced Victorian world continues to recede into history, enthusiasm for the work of Charles Dickens continues unabated, and Colley notes that there are many similarities between Dickens’s time and our own.
“The world of fraudulent bankers that we find in Dickens looks horribly familiar again today,” notes Colley. “The Victorians had experienced a world in which economic collapse had made the rich slightly richer and the poor much poorer. I was reading a marvelous interview with Robert Douglas-Fainhurst that draws numerous parallels. Dickens was very aware that electronic communication was changing the world, and he commented on it.”
“In the Victorians,” she says, “we see an appreciation for the written word that is disappearing today. Dickens novels are filled with important letters and speeches. His books themselves are a pleasure to read—though,” she adds with a smile, “he does get long-winded at times!”
The celebration of the 200th anniversary is extraordinary,” notes Colley. “There are celebrations all over the world, and many websites devoted to Dickens. Buffalo is taking part in a large global celebration.”
Sunday’s reading is free, open to the public, and will be followed by a reception.
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