Happy Christmas! That’s what the Brits say, right? I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.
The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964. The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever. The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare. A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words! To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking. (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency. One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)
Back to the Cow Palace. It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows. The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016). I’d never been there before. But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.
Dickens was an early favorite of mine. During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both. (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley. Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school. But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired. When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful. Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)
Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite. I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol. The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.
In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.
So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.
What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time. At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself. Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.
A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs. Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink. My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.
We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy. An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us). Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London. Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.
The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun. And it had a bonus: it reminded me of two special times in my past. When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens. (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)
Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams. Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.
When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels. (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.) Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift. (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)
Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago. At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.
The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character. Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish: May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.