Charles Dickens Thought Philadelphia Was Kinda Boring

So we erected an illegal monument to his memory. (Or something like that.)

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, and you’d almost have to go out of your way to avoid the Victorian novelist in Philadelphia. The Dickens Village animated figurine display, a longstanding Philadelphia tradition, recently moved from the now defunct Strawbridge’s to Macy’s. The first-ever, full-body statue of Dickens in the world is found in Clark Park. The Philadelphia Branch of the Charles Dickens Fellowship (for all intents and purposes, a fan club) is the oldest in the U.S. The Free Library of Philadelphia has declared 2012 the “Year of Dickens.” And strangely, Dickens’s pet raven Grip was stuffed after he died in 1841 and can now be found at that same library. So how to explain our relationship with this 19th-century British writer who spent only a few days in our fair city? If Philadelphia’s relationship with Dickens was a Facebook status, it would be, “It’s complicated.”

Dickens first came to Philadelphia in the winter of 1842 as a 30-year-old who had already found a large measure of success. His impressions of our city were mixed. He wrote: “It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.” Apparently Dickens didn’t grab a margarita at the Cantina on Passyunk. He continued: “My stay in Philadelphia was very short, but what I saw of its society, I greatly liked. Treating of its general characteristics, I should be disposed to say that it is more provincial than Boston or New York, and that there is afloat in the fair city, an assumption of taste and criticism.”

An assumption of criticism? He must have gone to an Eagles game. Dickens only stayed in Philadelphia a few days on his first trip, finding time to meet with a Philly resident by the name of Edgar Allan Poe and to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, where he went through their famous Haunted House.*

He returned to Philadelphia in 1868, as a 55-year-old man, and read from his stories at the Concert Hall at 1217 Chestnut Street. (The Concert Hall would later be torn down and the address now houses Bare Feet Shoes. Ah, progress.) Lines went around the block, and tickets for his first six shows were sold out in hours. He was, even back then, a full-on rock star in Philly.**

Three years later, Dickens passed away at age 58. He stated specifically in his will that he be remembered through his works, not through any statues. Needless to say, this being Philly, we almost immediately disregarded his wishes. Or so it would seem. Because for more than 100 years, the only statue of Charles Dickens on earth was found in Philadelphia (in the last couple of years, Dickens’s descendants have loosened the reins on statues).

Apparently no one gave sculptor Frank Elwell the memo about Dickens’s will, and in 1893 Elwell created a beautiful, life-size statue of a seated Dickens with one of his beloved characters, Little Nell, at his feet. The statue was created for Elwell’s exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago. When the fair was over, it was decided that the statue should be delivered to England as a gift to the Dickens family. Charles’s son, Sir Henry, was furious about the fact that the Americans had illegally created the bust, and upon its arrival in England, he ordered it to be returned to sender. Since there wasn’t exactly a return address on the statue, it randomly arrived in Philadelphia, and sat in a warehouse here for several years. Finally, it was purchased by the Fairmount Park Commission and erected at Clark Park in 1901, since essentially no one else wanted it.

A statue, a stuffed bird, a devoted fan club, a fawning library, and an animated village. Not bad for a guy who was only here for a few days. It seems that while Old Marley is as dead as a doornail, and Grip isn’t looking so good himself, on his 200th birthday, Charles Dickens is as alive as ever in Philadelphia.

* Dickens was, in fact, horrified by Eastern State, but he did not go through the Haunted House.

** It is worth wondering … when he concluded his readings at 1217 Chestnut, did Dickens go right around the corner to grab a cold one from the seven-year-old McGillin’s Ale House?