Update: the film on Shakespeare and Dickens can be viewed here.
I’ve been writing a lot about a certain birthday this year, but tomorrow (April 23rd) is the day we celebrate another important literary figure: William Shakespeare. Many who have read Dickens’s works will be familiar with the influence that Shakespeare had on Dickens’s writing, but Dickens also played an important role in the preservation of Shakespeare’s literary heritage. In a short film due to be released tomorrow, I talk to Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust about Dickens’s connections to the birthplace and particularly the events of 1847 when the house was put up for auction. The podcast was filmed on location and includes some fascinating materials from the Birthplace archives, including the visitor book signed by Dickens, playbills from productions Dickens put on, and some of Dickens’s letters. In this post, I wanted to think more about how we read Dickens’s initial response to the birthplace, and the issues around literary tradition, tourism and heritage that it raises.
Dickens first visited Shakespeare’s house on a trip to the region in 1838. In his letters, Dickens writes: “we went thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth”. It’s almost disappointingly brief in its pragmatic recounting of the visit and lacks the emotional investment we might want to find in the meeting-point of two such significant authors. The brevity is, I think, explained when we look at how Dickens treated the idea of Shakespeare and literary places in his fiction.
Dickens refers to the visit in his next work Nicholas Nickleby, humouring those who claim to feel such intense connection to Shakespeare: in the film, I read from a passage in which Mrs Wititterly claims that visiting the house “kindles quite a fire within one”, to which her husband retorts “There is nothing in the place, my dear – nothing, nothing”, and in turn Mrs Nickleby then replies, “I think there must be something in the place…”. The discussion is interesting in its choice of language and the polarities of thought around which the discussion centres: there is either “something” or “nothing” in the place (the use of “nothing” being of course resonant as a significant recurrent word in many of Shakespeare’s plays). In the dichotomy of something/nothing Dickens highlights the extremes of opinion to which people go when talking about Shakespeare, bounding from extreme reverance to complete irreverance (another episode in Nicklebysimilarly recounts such extremes, when Mrs Wititterly claims “I’m always ill after Shakespeare!”).
The debate over whether there is “something” or “nothing” in the place also highlights here the extent to which places themselves can be over- or under-invested with meaning. But it also opens up a space in which we become aware that, in going to extremes, the characters are missing the more important question: there is of course something in the place as a physical site, but what is that “something”? What is the meaning of a place and what is the appropriate meaning it holds? What kind of meaning do we, or should we, invest in places of significance?
I’ve talked about before about a passage in Bleak House in which Jo leads Lady Dedlock through the London streets, eventually arriving at the site where Nemo is buried: it is a burying-ground for the poor, prompting Lady Dedlock to ask “is this place of abomination consecrated ground?” to which Jo, with characteristic linguistic misunderstanding, replies “I don’t know nothink of consequential ground”. The question of what is “consequential ground” – i.e., of meaning, significance and value- becomes a key issue of the novel. That slippage between consecrated and consequentialground is, I think, the crux of the issue in the Nickleby discussion: how do we acknowledge “consequence” or significance without moving into the (un)holy consecration of a site as sacred, and thus invest it with a (false) meaning beyond its true value.
This was an era, of course, in which Bardolatry – an idolatrous investment of Shakespeare as the national poet – was on the rise. Dickens was resistant to the model of authorship this was founded on and the author-worship that this inspired: his use of Hamlet, for example, is typically only to achieve comic effect, whilst others saw Hamlet as epitomising the romantic figure of the author. Dickens’s hesitancy to investing the birthplace with “consecrated” meaning reads as a part of this response to Bardolatry: the brief mention of the visit – “we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth” – recognises the consequence of the visit, but acknowledges that a place can be of consequence without being consecrated, of importance without being over-invested with an excess of meaning.
That’s not to undermine the fact that Dickens does recognise that there is something in a place and that there is a value in preserving literary heritage as a site of significance for the nation. His role in the saving of the birthplace is further interesting in light of the fact that literary tourism would come to play such a central part of Dickens’s own literary heritage. The issue of national place, and what makes national place “consequential”, runs throughout Dickens’s work; in the Shakespeare birthplace, Dickens clearly found a site of national consequence and meaning, and his role in saving the house has preserved one of the most important sites of Britain’s literary heritage.