Nov 182014

Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an abused child was the theme for November’s local Dickens Fellowship meeting. Our great friend and University of Aberdeen alumnus Professor Grahame Smith introduced the subject, admitting that his is very much a 21st century interpretation of the novel which divides Dickens’s readers most. By David Innes.

TOCS coverGrahame argued that critics, including Huxley and Wilde, who derided The Old Curiosity Shop missed the novel’s intensity in their dismissal of Nell as an over-sentimentalised caricature.

Rather, our guest argued, she is an innocent abroad in an immoral world, although signs are there that she is just a normal child with typical childlike attitudes and reactions.

Whilst not streetwise, she is no innocent, even shown laughing at life’s absurdities in the early part of the novel.

Nell’s downfall, we were persuaded, is almost-wholly due to extraordinary external pressures on a character too young and undeveloped to bear burdens that would have been extremely stressful on a well-adjusted adult.

Quilp’s incessant stalking lechery, her grandfather’s gambling addiction, neglect and his dereliction of all paternal responsibility, and the horrors of industrial Britain laid bare as she and her grandfather journey away from their immediate metropolitan troubles, all conspire to break the child’s spirit.

Grahame drew parallels with Little Dorrit in both young characters’ methods in dealing with their elders’ fantasy worlds. In Nell’s being failed by the adult world, there are parallels with Bleak House. Nell’s ‘loathing of food’ and her being ‘too tired to eat’, it was suggested, hint at anorexia, a recognised clinical condition unknown in 1841.

The lively discussion which followed Grahame’s thought-provoking talk engendered further thoughts on the abusive nature of Quilp’s relationship with his wife and mother-in-law, and the role reversal in modern society where children protect and manage families in which parents are drug addicts or alcoholics, to keep family together and to provide a veneer of normality amid chaos.

The odd narrative structure, the clumsy (some might say) device Dickens used to flesh out what was originally a short story, was also explained and dissected during a fascinating evening in expert and inspiring company.

Nov 072014

TOCS coverBy David Innes. 

The Dickens Fellowship in Aberdeen will hold its next monthly meeting on Tuesday 11 November.

Following two inspiring talks on Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition and on Dickens’s role in Urania Cottage, Fellowship members are keen and primed to begin the in-depth look at this season’s novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

We are delighted to welcome back an old friend and supporter of the Aberdeen branch, Grahame Smith, whose session on Bleak House last season was a highlight of the

Focussing on this season’s featured book, Grahame’s subject will be Youth and Age in The Old Curiosity Shop: Nell as an Abused Child.

As ever, Grampian Housing Association are generously hosting the event at the Association’s offices on the corner of Huntly Street and Summer Street, where off-street parking is available.

We’ll be meeting from 1900-2100.

Admission is £3 for the evening, or on payment of an annual membership fee of £20, admission to all meetings is free.

More information here:

Sep 192014

valerie book cover transBy David Innes.

The Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship was delighted to welcome Professor Valerie Purton to talk at its first meeting of the 2014-15

Taking the theme from her 2012 book Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition, Valerie showed, in the context of this season’s featured book, The Old Curiosity Shop, how sentimentalism was a well-established literary device, existing centuries before Dickens created Little Nell and Kit Nubbles.

During her talk, Valerie drew on the biblical pathos inherent in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Jacob, medieval Mystery Plays, Richardson’s Clarissa and Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield among others. Goldsmith was a particular favourite of the youthful Dickens.

The virtue and moral steadfastness of characters like Little Nell who almost inevitably suffered pathos-laden deaths or gigantic moral dilemmas, originally moved readers to tears on publication but were later lampooned and ridiculed. Oscar Wilde famously declared,

One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter”.

Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition argues that Dickens, and others, set out to educate their readers and to demonstrate the importance and superiority of emotion and feelings through the creation of characters like Little Nell. Valerie argued that in some ways Dickens’s development of a sentimentalist tradition in The Old Curiosity Shop was a deliberate move to counteract the effects of the increasing industrialisation of England, and that sentimentalism popularly lives on in television drama, soap operas and the methods used by charities to raise funds by appealing to our emotions.

This was a wonderful way to start the third season.

Membership of the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship costs £20 per annum, or attendance at individual monthly events £3.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday 14 October, where the guest lecture will feature Jenny Hartley, speaking on Urania Cottage, the home for “fallen women” to which Dickens gave considerable support. The meeting will be held in Grampian Housing Association, on the corner of Huntly Street/Summer Street from 7-9 pm.

Mar 062014

David Innes updates us on all things Dickens.


Professor Malcolm Andrews, introduced by Fellowship chairman Paul Schlicke as one of his oldest friends in the UK, visited and gave a fascinating talk on his two artistic passions, Dickens and Turner, the renowned landscape and marine artist.

Our guest has been Professor of Victorian and Visual Studies at the University of Kent and edits The Dickensian, the journal of the Dickens Fellowship.

Like Dickens, Turner was familiar with Kent and its coastline and had a fascination for the sea. Professor Andrews demonstrated how, although they differed in temperament and outlook, both men’s prodigious imaginations were fired by the Channel and Medway sea-going traffic, the urban developments and burgeoning tourist industry and the powerful force exerted by nature and brine combined.

Professor Andrews illustrated his talk with Turner’s marine paintings, immense and powerful in their colour, movement and energy, evoking the irresistible violent power of the waves and storms crashing overhead. Comparing this with Dickens’s stirring paragraphs describing the shipwreck at Yarmouth from David Copperfield, our guest showed both artists’ abilities to capture the violence of nature and the terrifying destructive force of the sea.

In so doing, he pointed out that Turner continually surmounted the age-old difficulty of capturing the single chance fleeting attention of the viewer without the poet’s tools of embellishment and amplification.

Although they did spend a short time in each other’s company, they were not friends. They were too dissimilar, it seems, and Turner does not seem to have had many friends at all. Dickens, garrulous, gregarious and with finely-honed dramatic and humorous sensibilities was in many ways the opposite of the more insular, introspective and intolerant Turner, who seemed to reserve respect for men of the sea. Their timelines did overlap, but the painter was 37 years the author’s senior.

Professor Andrews’ ability to bestride two often-disparate artistic genres and distil the similarities into a riveting hour’s talk was a triumph and we are owe him our thanks for contextualising and analysing the not-dissimilar effects of two masters of their craft.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
Dec 092013

David Innes updates us on all things Dickens.

Dickens Officers Dec13 - Credit: Julie Thompson

December’s, and the second official meeting of the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship, was celebratory as the certificate confirming its status as a member of the International Fellowship was displayed.

It is all the more official since the signatures are almost illegible’, chairman Paul Schlicke joked.

After commemorative photos were taken by Voice photographer Julie Thompson, and before the official theme of the meeting, ‘Detectives and detecting in Bleak House’ was engaged, new information of local interest was shared.

A new cache of Dickens’s letters has been uncovered, relating to the Guild of Literature and Art, an organisation Dickens keenly promoted. According to the correspondence, the then occupant of Arbroath’s Hospitalfield House, offered a house near Coventry to the Guild. The letters indicate that Dickens was delighted with the offer.

Conditions attached to the proposed gift, meant, however, that the Guild had to refuse the offer. Given its connections, Aberdeen members will make a trip to Hospitalfield House in the future. It will also be of interest to delegates if Aberdeen’s bid to hold the 2016 international conference is successful.

In his talk, Paul outlined how, before 1829, the “police” were held largely in contempt and members regarded as disreputable by the population.

Dickens satirises them as incompetent in Great Expectations. When the Metropolitan force of 3000 recruits was created in 1829 as a crime prevention force, with only inspectors empowered to carry pistols, but with a multi-purpose bobby’s helmet issued, Dickens’s attitude to the police changed.

He admired their cleverness and mastery of disguise. He accompanied members, especially the 1846-52 Chief Inspector Field, on duty, seeing at first hand their methods. His journalism frequently featured imperturbable detectives and policemen. Field may have been the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, widely regarded as fiction’s first detective.

Dickens cert Dec13 - Credit: Julie Thompson

Certificate awarded to Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship – Credit: Julie Thompson

For all Dickens’s championing of the poor and downtrodden and railing against those who kept the poor downtrodden, and for all his overt contempt for the law and do-gooders, he had an obsession with order.

His desire to control everything about his dramas and public appearances bear this out, so it is no surprise that those with a similar outlook, military man Sergeant George and Bucket himself, are sympathetic figures in Bleak House.

Bleak House, we concluded, is full of detecting. There are up to a dozen characters all seeking information, trying to eke out truth and each for his or her own purposes.

Throughout it all, Dickens seems to be keen to expose corruption, hypocrisy and inefficiency and Esther Summerson is held up as an example of how he feels life should be lived – looking after one’s self and others and taking personal responsibility in so doing.

2013’s final gathering, on 17 December, will be a festive event. Paul will read A Christmas Carol. Members will provide light snacks and refreshments, and whilst it will hardly be a Pickwickian Dingley Dell feast, we will end the year on a suitably celebratory note.

Non-members are welcome at a nominal cost of £3, and the celebration will start at 1830 and go on until 2130. The venue is, as always, Grampian Housing, Huntly Street.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
Nov 282013

Scotland’s only Dickens Fellowship, whose status in the event of a Yes vote next year seems, curiously, to be missing from the governmental white paper on Scottish independence revealed this week, holds its latest monthly meeting on Tuesday 3rd December, from 19:00 to 21:00. David Innes writes.

Charles-Dickens-438x438It is with regret that many of us will leave Dickens’s masterpiece after Dr Paul Schlicke’s lecture and the resulting discussion on plots and detecting in Bleak House, this time with emphasis on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

A well-written and loved book like Bleak House, however, is a gift that keeps on giving. The series of Fellowship meetings and discussions will encourage members to re-read it, such is its complexity and economy.

Before the December festivities start, Fellowship members will gather again on Tuesday 17 December, when Paul will read A Christmas Carol.

Both meetings will be hosted by Grampian Housing Association, whose offices are at the Huntly Street/Summer Street crossroads. The Grampian Housing car park provides ample free off-street parking. The Fellowship is grateful to Grampian Housing for its continuing support

Membership of the Fellowship for 2013-14 costs £20. Non-members can attend individual meetings by paying £3 on the night.

Nov 142013

As a preliminary to the evening’s theme Serialisation and Bleak House, chairman Dr Paul Schlicke revealed that Dickens Fellowship HQ is ‘full of enthusiasm’ for Aberdeen’s adoption to the Fellowship. We’re the first in Scotland since the Edinburgh Fellowship disbanded in 1956. Hibernian FC have not won the Scottish Cup since 1902. The Voice’s David Innes calls in.

Charles-Dickens-438x438The University of Aberdeen’s Dr Dan Wall, a local member, introduced Serialisation and Bleak House by recalling the approach taken by the BBC’s Andrew Davies to its 2005 Bleak House broadcasts.

Davies’s production offered twice-weekly, 30 minute, episodes to replicate, as far as televisual serialisation would allow, how Dickens planned Bleak House to be offered to the public.

Serialisation, Dr Wall told us, was not exclusive to Dickens. Near-contemporaries, including Gaskell, Eliot, Trollope and Conrad, all used weekly or monthly journals to reach the widest possible audience.

Periodical publication had several advantages during its heyday of 1830-1870.

It was a cheap means of accessing fiction at a shilling (5p) per issue, when three-volume novels, the favoured structure of publishers and libraries, cost a hefty three guineas (that’s £3.15, kids).  Not everyone who read serialised fiction, or had it read to them, bought the numbers.

Subscription libraries, which themselves would contribute to the demise of serialisation and working men’s clubs were means by which fiction could be accessed. With the expansion of rail travel and the ubiquitous WH Smiths, periodicals sold well to passengers.

Publishers loved serialisation’s profitability. With no need for binding and covers, the use of cheaper paper and with pages of advertisements sandwiching the narrative, periodic publication was attractive.  When the novel was published in full, the same plates were re-used to minimise type-setting costs.

As for Bleak House, monthly publication allowed Dickens some breathing space to fit in his other considerable writing and editing commitments. Once his copy had met the deadline, he was free to pursue these.

He also had an eye on literary piracy; even before The Pickwick Papers’ serialisation was completed, and before Dickens had finished writing it, there were nine stage adaptations in production.

For a writer as prolific as Dickens, serialisation meant that more than one work could be worked on simultaneously. Piecemeal novel release saw each issue reviewed, giving free advertising and attracting readers who, once they had committed to a narrative, were unlikely to stop purchasing it. Bleak House, in particular, can become that addictive, believe me.

As always, the group discussion was informative and entertaining when we,

  • touched on some critical reaction to Bleak House, an early detective novel, where the effect on readers was described by one critic as being of ‘dubious morality’
  • recalled how even in the 1950s and 60s, boys’ comics including Rover and The Eagle continued to offer narratives with cliffhanger endings, ensuring that the next issue was eagerly sought and
  • agreed that the contemporary phenomenon of downloading is comparable to the subscription libraries of Victorian Britain.

Nothing changes, it seems, but Dickens endures.

The Fellowship will conclude its consideration of Bleak House on Tuesday 3rd December, 2013, when Dr Paul Schlicke will talk on the theme, Plots and Detecting in Bleak House, followed by a discussion seminar on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

More information on the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship can be obtained at

To be added to the Fellowship mailing list, e-mail

Nov 082013

HWC4Holburn West Church, in Ashley Park Drive, celebrates its sixth annual Church and Culture programme with another varied series of events bringing together faith and the arts, Alan Jackson tells Voice.

It meets at the church every Monday evening and Thursday afternoon throughout November. The series started on Monday 4 November when Hamish Mitchell read his poetry, describing moving childhood experiences of war and polio.

Future sessions will include discussions of Shakespeare’s history plays, C.S.Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, The Devil in Verse – Readings from Milton and Burns and a session of sacred music led by jazz-influenced John Montgomery.

Perhaps the highlight of the programme is a double drama bill featuring plays for voices, presenting Don’t Know Nothing, the story of Jo in Bleak House and a modern adaptation of The Parable of the Good Samaritan on Monday 18 November.

This will be followed by a discussion on poverty and compassion in our society.

All are welcome and full details of the programme can be obtained from the church website or by calling 01224-571120.

Nov 052013

Charles-Dickens-438x438By David Innes.

The newly-chartered Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship continues its examination of Bleak House at its upcoming meeting. We have now progressed to numbers 11-15, chapters 33–49.

The seminar will be introduced by Dr Dan Wall, who will speak on the serialisation of Bleak House.

The novel was published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853, Dickens finding a ready and eager audience keen to discover the outcome of the plotline left hanging at the end of the previous monthly instalment.

Do I hear the syn-drums of the closing Eastenders theme tune?

Number 11 was published in January 1853 and number 15 in May of that year.

The meeting will be held at Grampian Housing, at the Huntly Street/Summer Street crossroads on Tuesday 12 November and will last from 1900-2100. The Grampian Housing car park provides ample free off-street parking.

Membership of the Fellowship for 2013-14 costs £20. Non-members can attend by paying £3 on the night.

Oct 172013

Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103October’s monthly meeting of the Aberdeen Dickens Fellowship had a celebratory air about it.
Not only were we to discuss a further aspect of Bleak House, considered to be Dickens’s crowning glory as a novelist, we were also treated to the news that the Aberdeen group has been awarded its charter.
Aberdeen’s is now the only Dickens Fellowship in Scotland, and part of a global fellowship of thousands, united in their admiration of Dickens and his prodigious legacy of unsurpassed writing.

Further good news is that Aberdeen’s offer to host the 2016 Dickens Fellowship International Conference is the only offer received so far by the Dickens Fellowship Council and the bid is finding favour with Council members. What larks, indeed.

So, to the evening’s theme, The Topicality of Bleak House.

What were the contemporary events during Dickens’s planning, writing and publishing his ninth novel?

  • Dickens began writing Bleak House, for publication in monthly parts, in December 1852, the year after The Great Exhibition, the first time that thousands travelled to a centrally-organised event.
  • Stephenson’s Rocket had made its first journey in 1829. By 1840, thousands of miles of railway tracks criss-crossed Britain. So inadequate was the road system that Dickens’s first journey to Edinburgh in 1834 had been made by boat.
  • Whilst outwardly proclaiming to improve democracy, the much-anticipated 1832 Reform Act had done little to increase the franchise and improve representation.
  • The Exhibition was as much a celebration of the fact that the European revolutions of 1848 had not been replicated in Britain and it was a popular self-promoting celebration of the ‘transformational, dynamic prosperity’ of a mature industrial age.
  • Dickens hated it, and considered it ‘vulgar’. Bleak House, from its opening chapter’s evocation of an environment of mud and fog is almost deliberately ‘uncreative’ in contrast to the Exhibition’s boastful celebration of British creativity and global influence.
  • Chancery, the central bureaucratic monolith of Bleak House, originally devised as a charity to assist the less well-off access to legal representation, was failing. Myriad is the evidence of its failure to act on the behalf of the disadvantaged, as costs associated with never-ending cases swallowed whole estates and inheritances. The Times of the 1850s was running a campaign critical of Chancery. Dickens himself had fallen foul of the lack of protection as his work was plagiarised. The generations-old Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, the novel’s all -pervading brooding presence is, from Dickens’s pen, representative of all that was wrong in Britain in the 1850s.

Whilst it comprises 67 chapters in 20 books, this is an economical novel. Every character, sub-plot and dialogue is a contribution to the whole. Loose ends are not left untied or are clipped neatly. It is a work of supreme inter-connectivity.

Rather than join in the popular clamour of approval for establishment spin doctors’ views of British success, Dickens used Bleak House to shine a light on the vapid, self-consuming nature of public services, to address social deprivation, rounding on the privileged, and on rule-makers and enforcers,

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

he thunders on the pathos-laden death of Jo, the crossing sweeper. We agreed that as a social commentator Dickens had earned the right to address those in power who were shirking their social and community responsibilities.

He populates Bleak House with dysfunctional families, where children act as ‘parents’ to their own neglectful or inadequate parents, where the burden of orphanry is widespread, and in contrast to the celebration of free-market capitalism of 1851, floats the message that we have responsibility for looking after each other. He might have written, ‘We’re all in this together’.

Esther Summerson, in her narrator role, despite the bad hand she’s been dealt as a start to life, is the moral touchstone of Bleak House, demonstrating how to survive and prosper despite hardship and how not to exploit others in the process.

It was quite a night. It’s quite a book.

If this has whetted your appetite, new friends are always welcome to attend meetings. Membership of the Fellowship costs £20 for the 2013-14 period, or non-members can attend by paying £3 per meeting on entry.

The programme for the rest of the session is

Tuesday 12 November 2013, a lecture by Dr Dan Wall on The Serialisation of Bleak House, followed by a discussion seminar on numbers 11-15, chapters 33–49.

Tuesday 3 December 2013, Dr Paul Schlicke will, again lecture on the theme, Plots and Detecting in Bleak House, followed by a discussion seminar on numbers 16–20, chapters 50–67.

Tuesday 17 December, Dr Paul Schlicke will read A Christmas Carol

Tuesday 4 February, readings of favourite passages from Dickens’s writings by members of the local Fellowship

Tuesday 4 March, Malcolm Andrews lecture, ‘The Speech of the Sea is Various: Dickens, Turner and the Sea’.

Tuesday 8 April, seminar on selected journalism. Texts available on-line on John Drew’s website

Tuesday 13 May: Fellowship banquet

A warm welcome will be extended to all comers, and lively questioning and debate is almost certainly guaranteed. You can be added to the mailing list by e-mailing Dr Paul Schlicke, Fellowship Chairman at

For more information, visit

– David Innes

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.