Placing Dickens at 202: the Portsmouth statue

Today is the 202nd birthday of Charles Dickens, and has been marked by the unveiling of a statue of the author in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. The statue has attracted attention not just because of the on-going interest in Dickens since his bicentenary, but also because it’s marked by a degree of controversy over whether it should have gone ahead. Dickens’s will indicated his wish that no such public memorial be constructed of him:

“I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner…that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial … I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.”

It’s a pretty clear statement of the author’s wish not to be remembered in this public way either immediately after his death, or at a future time. In an article on the BBC about “why was Dickens’s dying wish ignored?“, one relative suggests that his words above have been taken out of context, and it is implied that if he could have foreseen his popularity, he may have felt differently about memorialisation. However, Dickens’s statement in his will reflects similar feelings that he expressed upon the memorialisation of Shakespeare. In 1863-4, Dickens was involved with the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, one of the aims of which was to raise funds for a memorial to Shakespeare: Dickens was not in favour of building a statue, however, maintaining that “his best monument is his works”. It’s a sentiment that resonates throughout his reflections in his will, which similarly asks that his published works remain the focus of his legacy and remembrance.

Whether or not it should have gone ahead, the statue is fitting in the context of Dickens’s cultural legacy in the last couple of years. For a start, the statue seems to keep in mind the importance of his literary legacy, depicting Dickens sitting atop a pile of books* and holding one half-read: this is Dickens the reader not writer, situating him, like us today, as consumer of his works. And the work of locating Dickens in statue form draws together several strands of contemporary interest. As I’m currently writing about in a piece on neo-Victorian spaces, place has played a central role in the growing popularity of all things Victorian in recent years. The tangible presence of the Victorians in our urban spaces today – in buildings, streets, and public spaces dating to the Victorian era, and in the lasting legacy of the Victorians’ own place-making processes –  is often cited as one facet in the contemporary appeal of the Victorians over other historical periods. And in Dickens 2012 in particular, there was a repeated recourse to the places of his life and literature that shaped many of the bicentenary activities. It seems fitting then that Dickens’s memory is, literally, located as part of this neo-Victorian geography, the statue creating a tangible physical presence of Dickens’s place in a cultural landscape in which location so often features as a mode through which to make sense of the relationship between past and present, and the interactions between life and literature, that have been at the forefront of contemporary preoccupations. If nothing else, the statue is a fitting memorial to the forms of memorialisation that have been prominent since 2012, and a reflection of what Dickens 2012 meant as part of a longer trajectory of Dickensian celebrations and memorialisations.

*Are these his books? I can’t find out, or tell from the photos, if the books are inscribed with Dickens titles.

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