Tuesday, February 7

What the Dickens?

Happy 200th birthday, Charles Dickens!

Dickens, the British author who created unforgettable characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and David Copperfield, was born in Portsmouth, England, on Feb. 7, 1812.

Dickens first visited Philadelphia in 1842 and received a celebrity welcome, shaking hands with fans for hours in a hotel lobby. When he returned in 1868, people camped out for tickets to his readings and scalpers commanded high prices for the sold-out performances.

Dickens only visited Philadelphia twice but two local benefactors donated major Dickens collections to the Philadelphia public library, including 1,200 letters.

Among the items on view in the rare book department are first editions of his novels and original artwork for the tales; dozens of letters to colleagues; the desk where he left his unfinished 15th book, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; and an 1846 manuscript of the "Children's New Testament" - Dickens' own version of the life of Jesus, which he read to his children each Christmas.

Also on display, safe in a terrarium, stands Grip, the pet raven that Dickens preserved through taxidermy. Grip appeared as a minor character in Dickens' book "Barnaby Rudge," which Edgar Allan Poe reviewed while living in Philadelphia. Poe criticized the bird's small role, and penned "The Raven" four years later.

Through another twist of fate, Clark Park in west Philadelphia ended up with a statue of the writer. The sculpture by Frank Edwin Elwell features a seated Dickens on a pedestal and one of his most beloved characters - Little Nell, from "The Old Curiosity Shop" - standing below.

Dickens had forbidden such memorials in his will, but one other full-sized statue stands in Sydney, Australia.

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