Charles Dickens turns 200 on Tuesday, Feb. 7. There's no sense singing “Happy Birthday” since he died in 1870 and the song was written decades after that. But here are a few other ways to celebrate the great author.
-Book a flight to London, where the Museum of London is staging a “Dickens and London” exhibition through June 10. (You might also look in at Dickens World, a sort of Victorian theme park in Kent, where the author lived.)
-Book a train to New York, where the Morgan Library is in the last days of its “Charles Dickens at 200” exhibition. (It closes Feb. 12.)
-Stay home and think about Dickens as a visionary analyst of public transportation.
Yes, that last one may sound a little far-fetched. But meet UCLA associate professor of English Jonathan H. Grossman. Grossman has just published “Charles Dickens’s Networks: Public Transport and the Novel,” a scholarly book (Oxford University Press, no less) that points out how well Dickens understood how new technology would change not only transportation but also human social networks.
As it happens, on the same week Dickens was hired to write his first novel in February 1836 London’s first railway line opened. (The first book was “The Pickwick Papers.”)
So we emailed Grossman to ask where he would go if he could take a devoted Dickensian to London this year.
“You ask that because Dickens and London are inseparable,” wrote Grossman. “One could even ask: ‘Who made who?’ How to choose then? For the Dickens that I admire, however, London was not merely an urban phenomenon. It was a hub. Its roads and its river traffic ran out all over the British nation and the globe. That is how he pictured it in his books. We never stay just in London. So I’d try to capture that flavor of London.”
And so to Charing Cross. This area, Grossman noted, is where Dickens’ Pickwick catches a stagecoach at the Golden Cross Inn. (A commercial building now stands in the inn’s place, Grossman said.) Given the train traffic here, Grossman said, this is also a chance to remember “Dickens’ awe at the South Eastern Railway” (on which he commuted between London and Kent). This is also a likely moment to remember that the author, on his way home from France in June 1865, was injured and traumatized in the notorious Staplehurst rail crash, which killed 10 people and injured dozens more.
If he had Dickens himself to lead around London now, said Grossman, “hands down I would take him to watch the planes at Heathrow. He would love it.” The author would also “laugh to see that the traffic was still just as bad today as it was in his day, even with the fantastic new automobile machines.”
On a more somber note, Grossman said, Dickens would “find the economic stratification separating people depressingly familiar.”