“Look at that beast,” said Gerald Dickens, laughing. “He’s terrifying.”
The smiling British actor, a great-great-grandson of writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870), second only to Shakespeare in the lineup of English literary superstars, points to Grip, a stuffed raven about the size of a big cat mounted on a branch in a case within a second glass case in the rare-book section of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
So fond was Dickens of the bird, who could talk, pop champagne corks and hector horses, pets and children in the Dickens household, that at the pet’s passing in March 1841 he was moved to tell friends about Grip’s last hours.
“On the clock striking twelve he appeared slightly agitated, but he soon recovered, walked twice or thrice along the coach house, stopped to bark, staggered, exclaimed “Halloa old girl! (his favorite expression) and died. The children seem rather glad of it. He bit their ankles but that was play. He behaved throughout with a decent fortitude, equanimity, and self-possession, which cannot be too much admired,” Dickens said, unable to continue.
Strange as it might sound, the dead bird and accompanying year-long Dickens program at the Free Library probably provide the perfect means for the American culture vulture to celebrate not only Dickens’s 200th birthday on Feb. 7, but also the little-known yet astonishing impact of Grip on American letters and popular culture to this day.
“That’s because Grip is ‘The Raven,’ ” said Edward G. Pettit, a lecturer at La Salle University, author of “Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia” (History Press, 2012) and consultant to the library’s coming year of exhibits, readings, pub crawls and other events to mark Dickens’s ties to Philadelphia and, more subtly, Poe’s shadow behind Dickens.
Poe (1809-49) was a literary critic in Baltimore, New York and, for six years, Philadelphia. (After his wife died, he wandered back to Baltimore, where he died mysteriously in the streets.) In 1841, he reviewed Dickens’ serialized new novel, “BarnabyRudge” for Graham’s Magazine, explained Pettit. The novel, long out of favor, centers on anti-Catholic riots in London and a strange hero named Rudge, who has a goofball talking raven named Grip. At the end of the fifth chapter, Grip makes a noise and someone asks, “What was that — him tapping at the door?”
Another character responds, “’Tis someone knocking softly at the shutter.”
In his review, Poe both accurately predicts the outcome of the serialized novel, and suggested that a spooky raven like Grip could have a more weighty role in literature.
“Two years after Dickens visited Philadelphia, when both met and groused about copyright infringement,” Pettit continued, “Poe writes ‘The Raven,’ with its haunting refrain of ‘Nevermore.’ ” The poem, for which he was paid $15 (about $350 in inflation-adjusted dollars today) “sweeps Poe to instant fame, if not fortune, and generations of American kids get their first exposure to poetry, usually in high school or junior high, through ‘The Raven.’ ”
Movies, television spinoffs, even the Baltimore Ravens football team carry on this curious connection between England’s most famous Victorian author and America’s foremost gothic superstar, Pettit allowed. And the Free Library even has the only known copy of “The Raven” in Poe’s hand, as well as the manuscripts for “Annabel Lee” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
“I had no idea,” confessed Gerald Dickens, 48, when told of the Dickens-Poe connection.
Indeed, the first thing he saw on his first visit to the Dickens rare-books exhibit in December was a bust high atop a shelf over the librarian’s desk. Look closely, and one makes out a black bird sitting on the head of a Greek goddess. If there were an identifying plaque, and there is none, it could read:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.
“It’s a pun, a visual reminder of the Dickens-and-Poe thing,” offered Pettit. “A literary joke, something the old robber barons who collected the Dickens and Poe stuff had made and kept in their study long ago before donating it to the library.”
Gerald Dickens then followed a long gallery with 16 display cases filled with first editions of Dickens works, including all five of his Christmas stories, starting with “A Christmas Carol.” There is Dickens’s pen set, his postal scale and his book knife. He used it to open mail, but also to separate the pages of newly printed books, which at that time were not separated by the printers.
A sharp right turn leads directly to Grip, perched in a dark corner for preservation purposes, and across the corridor from him the mounted headstone of Dick, another of Dickens’s pet birds, which he had buried at the family’s Gad’s Hill Placehome in Kent, England.
“Dickens was interested in connections with animals,” said Lillian Nayder, a professor at Bates College and author of “The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth” (Cornell University Press, 2010). “He would anthropomorphize animals and things, make objects come to life, and animals, too.”
Nayder, who is president of the Dickens Society and will lecture later this year on the Dickens bicentennial in Australia, England and Switzerland, said: “Dickens had a real will to possess power. He literally mesmerized people, not figuratively, but literally he sat down and tried to exert a magnetic power over others, a way he could control the consciousness of others.”
“That may explain his success as a master storyteller,” she continued, “but it’s this part of Dickens that might be problematic about his relationships with other people.”
While for decades he loved and had nine children with Hogarth, his wife, at 45 he left her for 18-year-old Ellen Ternan, said Nayder. He forced his children to choose between him and Catherine — only son Charles sided with his mother — and drove her from the family homes.
“For modern readers, I suppose the question is what to make of a truly great writer, and continue enjoying his novels while knowing about his personal life,” Nayder said.
In the next and last room of the exhibit is the splendid Elkins Library, named after philanthropist William M. Elkins, who gave the Dickens material — actually his entire library, including rugs — to the Free Library. Gerald Dickens slid happily into the chair at the desk Dickens used at Gad’s Hill Place. First editions, manuscripts, letters and book illustrations fill the library shelves. An oil painting hanging above the desk shows exactly how Dickens’s study looked in June 1870, when he died.
“The will stated that everything was to be sold and the proceeds divided among the children,” offered Gerald Dickens. “Family members took a few personal things — we have some in my family — and the rest was scattered to collectors around the world.”
“The one thing we have is the name,” said Dickens, noting that copyrights to Dickens’s works have long expired and the family derives no income from his creations. “Every Dickens boy since 1870 has had Charles as a middle name.
“But no one in the family has had the guts to name a baby Charles Dickens.”
According to Florian Schweizer, director of the Charles Dickens Museum in London and organizer of the Dickens 2012 compendium of celebrations in 100 countries, the Dickens program at the Free Library in Philadelphia is the largest non-academic celebration in America.
The University of Massachusetts at Lowell has a family-friendly program planned, including the pen-and-ink portrait of Grip that Dickens brought with him during his yearlong American tour in 1842.
The Morgan Library in New York City is focused on its collection of rare Dickens manuscripts and first editions.
At press time, there was nothing planned in Washington by the Library of Congress , which owns Dickens’s walking stick and other possessions.
Area enthusiasts can join a Dickens Walking Tour of Washington on Feb. 6 and April 15: Dickens visited in 1842 and 1868, meeting with Presidents Tyler and Johnston at the White House and doing sellout performances at downtown venues. Re-enactors in period costumes will perform at buildings Dickens would have known during his visits. For more information, see www.historicstrolls.com/dickensphotos.htm
● “Year of Dickens” at the Philadelphia Free Library: www.freelibrary.org/dickens
● Dickens 2012 lists worldwide events at www.dickens2012.org
● “Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation,” Lowell, at www.uml.edu/FAHSS/English/Dickens
● “Charles Dickens at 200,” The Morgan Library and Museum at www.themorgan.org
● The Dickens Reading Project at www.readingcharlesdickens.com
●The Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia is at www.nps.gov/edal
● Charles Dickens Museum, London is at www.dickensmuseum.com
Lane is a freelance writer.