Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth - and in Sheffield the bicentenary is being celebrated by a band of Dickens devotees. The Star reporter Rachael Clegg dropped in on the latest meeting of the Sheffield Dickens Fellowship to find out what makes the great man and his works so special
IT IS 200 years to the day since Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth - and almost 142 years since he died in Higham, Kent, in 1870.
But, as far as his fans sitting around a table in the tranquil Upper Chapel off Surrey Street in Sheffield city centre are concerned, the great man is very much alive and as relevant as ever.
The Sheffield Dickens Fellowship - seven of whose members are gathered in the chapel’s reading room - have been studying, discussing and dissecting the works of Dickens for almost 30 years.
“There are so many different things to talk about,” says secretary Di Jones, from Fulwood. “The detail is unbelievable. He must have never stopped writing.”
Chairwoman of the group, Sue Wormald, agrees. “His characters are so rich and vivid they have become part of our national consciousness - we all know who Oliver, Scrooge and Miss Havisham are,” she says.
The Sheffield Dickens Fellowship, which meets monthly, is one of 57 branches worldwide. Other aficionados meet in locations as far flung as Palo Alto in California, Cleveland in Ohio and Adelaide, Australia.
Here in Sheffield, such is the richness of Dickens’ work, that the Fellowship members concentrate on studying only one book a year.
“There is just so much to talk about,” says Fellowship member Jean Ireland. “He picks up on many truths that are still part of our lives today.”
Pauline Crossland, another member, sums it up. “He could well be writing about today’s society,” she says. “The only difference is we wear different clothes.”
Modern day parallels notwithstanding, Dickens had a hard boyhood, according to Di.
“His father ended up in a debtors’ prison. Charles had to work from a very young age and his family had to sell all their furniture. He even joined his father for tea at the debtors’ prison every day.
“All this made a very strong impression on him,” she says. “He was living at a time was life was on the streets - it must have been what Mumbai is like today.
“In Dickens’ time the streets were full of action - there would be children clearing horse muck for the ladies who wanted to cross the road without getting their dresses mucky.
“People lived on the streets in those days - they slept in doorways.”
This was the world Dickens inhabited - bustling, busy London - at a time when child labour was acceptable and the poor were beyond destitute.
Dickens drew from his surroundings for his evocative writing, and highlighted the social problems of life in Victorian Britain.
“He heightened awareness of child slavery and was able to bring issues to the attention of people in high places,” says Sue. “He wrote with sentimentality about the fact children were dying and about the plight experienced by ordinary people.”
And soon Dickens - a writer of fiction as well as a part-time parliamentary correspondent - became popular with the masses.
His works were serialised in Victorian magazines and thousands would follow his stories.
“He had to keep writing for money,” says Di. “So he always ended his stories with a cliffhanger, which made them real page-turners.
“In America people would flock to the arrival of the boats when the next issue was out - they were dying to read what had happened in the stories.
“He was such a good writer - certainly Britain’s best after Shakespeare.”
Dickens was brought to the modern-day masses at Christmas, with the critically-acclaimed televised version of Great Expectations, starring X Files star Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and pin-up Douglas Booth as Pip.
“It was great that it brought Dickens to everyone’s attention again,” says Di.
“But I wasn’t sure about Pip.”
The rest of the group agree. “He was too modelly,” says Di. “And Estella was awful!”
But it’s not only small screen adaptations and silver screen interpretations that are once again turning the spotlight on Dickens.
This year is the bicentenary of the author’s birth on February 7, 1812 - and to mark the event the Sheffield Dickens Fellowship is hosting a year packed with lunch club events, a heritage day, public lectures and, towards the end of the year, a very special festive reading of eerie passages from A Christmas Carol.
And, like Dickens himself, even the Fellowship itself has a proud history. The group was formed in Sheffield in 1904, when it had as many as 200 members.
Now there are around 30 - some of whom travel from as far as Liverpool to join in sessions. “There aren’t many groups around now,” says Di.
And it’s for that reason Di has been invited to Buckingham Palace next Tuesday, February 14, to take part in an official Royal commemoration of Dickens’ bicentenary.
The palace reception will be attended by the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, The Princess Royal, The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and Princess Alexandra.
“They’ve invited all the Dickens’ Fellowship secretaries,” says Di, tucking her invitation into a Buckingham Palace envelope, along with a cutting from a newspaper. “It says Gillian Anderson is going to be there as well - I think my family are more impressed by that than the fact I’m going to Buckingham Palace!”
The next event in the Sheffield Dickens’ Fellowship diary is this Sunday, February 12, at the Upper Chapel at 11am and 6.30pm, when the group together with the Rev David Shaw will conduct two services of thanksgiving to celebrate Dickens’ bicentenary.
Log on to www.dickensfellowship.org/branches/sheffield for more information.