For the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, David does a pull-together. It’s a tale of two manuscript finds, of the Battle of Arnhem, of favourite professors, of a couple of virtual tours, of Harvard and London Universities, of John Keats, of Zoom, of Daphne du Maurier, of personal recollections, of the Victoria & Albert Museum, of academic tenure.
A couple of days ago Mary and I changed the lampshade on the light in the hall.
It was the highlight of the week. So exciting. Something different.
Ok, I’m being facetious, needless to say. But there is a large measure of truth in the general point that our lives have been cabined, cribbed, confined by Covid. That phrase – cabin’d, cribbed, confined – isn’t mine, needless to say. It’s Shakespeare. Macbeth. But it puts the matter perfectly. We are all more or less under house arrest now. On a very short leash. My personal, first-hand world – first-hand as opposed to what I see on a screen or hear over the airwaves or “encounter” between the covers of a book – my personal, first-hand world has shrunk to approximately a 2-mile radius of my house. Going into central London – we live a mile or so north and west of Regent’s Park – going into central central London – which is three to four miles from West Hampstead, where we live – going into central London, that’s a real treat, a really big deal. Earlier on in this “plague year” I was of course doing it fairly often – I’d go in on the bus or the Tube – but that method of conveyance, well, for me, I’ve called time on it for now. Thanks to this new, apparently much more contagious strain of the virus. And because – not to put too fine a point on it – so many more of my fellow Londoners are now vectors – carriers – it’s like pyramid selling, this wretched thing – for the Evil One who’s now stalking all of us. I remember last summer – surely we all do this – sizing up the odds. At the time I think it was something like one in a thousand Londoners had it. Well, I’ll take my chances with those odds. But when it got to 1 in 30 – well, that means every time you get on a bus there’s a fellow passenger who’s a carrier. And of course one in 30 now– well, we should be so lucky. Word has it that it’s now 1 in 20. Or even one in 10. Me? Yeah, you got it. Those odds I don’t like. That’s a game of Russian roulette I want no part of, even if, yes, it’s a Ruger GP 100, i.e., a revolver whose cylinder holds ten rounds rather than a six-shooter.
So, no double-decker bus journeys or Tube rides for this lad. For the time being at any rate.
That said, I’m wild with excitement today because I’m thinking there’s a pretty good chance Mary’s going to drive me into Kensington and Knightsbridge. I’ve tracked down the childhood home of Boy Browning and I’m going to get a photograph of it. Who’s Boy Browning, you ask? And why am I interested? Well, you’ve all heard of Daphne Du Maurier, the famous novelist. Boy Browning was her husband. He had a distinguished, much-decorated military career. His proper name and title was Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning. He’s credited with being “the father of the British airborne forces.” And to ring a bell that you all know, it was Boy Browning who, when the Allied Operation Market Garden – the centrepiece of which was the famous Battle of Arnhem – when Operation Market Garden was being planned by Field Marshal Montgomery and other high ranking Allied officers – it was Boy Browning who said, memorably and famously, “I wonder if it’s a bridge too far.” The “boy” was right of course.
Anyway, I want to take a look at Boy Browning’s boyhood home in connection with my upcoming Hampstead Virtual Tour. On it I’ll be talking about – and guiding – Daphne Du Maurier’s childhood home, Cannon Hall, one of the grandest houses in Hampstead.
And Hampstead, well, that starts another hare in my world. Today – February 7th – is the anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth. February 7th, 1812. Dickens of course has important Hampstead connections – is there any part of London that doesn’t have Dickens connections?
But the point here is not the Hampstead connections. It’s my personal connections, the David connections. I’m in London – I’ve made my life in London because of Charles Dickens. Now today being the 209th anniversary of Dickens’ birth we are doing, for a huge Zoom audience in America, a Dickens Virtual Tour. Simon is guiding it. And Simon has asked me to come along, make a “guest appearance.” Which I’m going to do. For four reasons. 1) because Simon’s asked me. 2) Because Simon’s tours are unfailingly excellent – so informative and so entertaining. He’s one of the brightest stars in the London Walks constellation, Simon. 3) because our customers like it when, as quite often happens these days, they get two or even four or five guides for the price of one. And 4) because I very much like – more than like, need – the social dimension of our virtual tours. Seeing all those new faces – from all over the world. Well, it’ll be from all over the United States, this evening. Mingling, chatting, comparing notes – asking the question, “how’s it been for you over there?” That kind of thing. This connects up of course with the point I was making right at the outset that our lives are now so cabbin’d, cribbed, confined that a chance to see some new faces, meet some people who aren’t in our “bubble” – well, that’s a consummation devoutly desired. It’s manna. An oasis-in-the-Sahara moment.
And the Dickens story, I’ll be relating, well, it connects up, obliquely, with my Hampstead Virtual Tour. On the tour I will of course be talking about Keats and Hampstead. Wentworth Place as he knew it. Today it’s known as the Keats House Museum. Where he spent the so-called Great Year – September 1818 to 1819, a period of astonishing fecundity, months in which he turned out eight or ten of the greatest poems in the language. I’ll speak of course about him sitting under that tree writing Ode to a Nightingale. That will be – for reasons that I’m keeping under wraps at the moment – a tour de force moment on the tour. Let’s just say, I’ve made a find.
But anyway, the personal connection to start with goes back to the 1960s, my days as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. We all have our “undergraduate heroes”, as they’re usually called. Professors whom we all but worshipped. My undergraduate hero was one Alvin Whitley. Like me, he was a small-town kid. Not from Wisconsin, though, from Texas. He was exceptionally bright. Went to Harvard. And then – this will be about 1950 or 51 – he was in his early 20s – he got a fellowship that brought him over here, to England, to research. I often think about him being here in 1951. How grim it must have been. How battered England will have been. The war just six years back in the rearview mirror. Circumstances so straitened that rationing was still the order of the day. In fact, the post-war rationing was more severe than the rationing during the war, for the understandable reason that when the war ended, the Americans turned off the tap. And for that matter, all that – well, practically all of it – all that American military infrastructure upped stakes and went home. That was a lot of American spend to this country’s economy that almost overnight was no longer there.
So that’s when my undergraduate here, future University of Wisconsin professor Alvin Whitley, was over here. I picture him as a young, wide-eyed, small-town kid from Texas. And he’d got access to some boxes of old papers, letters, that sort of thing. On one of those old yellowed sheets was a poem. And young Mr. Whitley said to himself, “I recognise that handwriting.” It was John Keats’ handwriting. John Keats, the great romantic poet. Alvin Whitley had done a seminar course at Harvard on Keats, a seminar course during which they’d looked closely at facsimiles of a couple of Keats manuscripts. So that young American from deepest Texas knew Keats’ handwriting. He’d just discovered a previously unknown John Keats poem. It made the New York Times! The University of Wisconsin hired him. Made him a tenured professor. He was home. Safe and sound. Didn’t have to get into the publish or perish rat race. Just gave it a miss. Why not? He had tenure. And it meant that he could give his all to his lecturing, his teaching. He was the most brilliant professor. My favourite. My undergraduate hero.
Fast forward a quarter of a century. It’s mid-1970s and I’m over here working on my Ph.D. My Ph.D. not from the University of Wisconsin or some other American university. From UCL. University College London. The oldest and most prestigious college in the London University solar system.
This is the tale Simon wants me to tell on his Virtual Tour of Dickens’ London this evening. I get to be a guest speaker for five minutes. My cameo role.
I was working on Dickens’s twelfth novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The manuscript of which is in the V & A, the Victoria & Albert Museum.
I was doing a manuscript study. I was collating the manuscript against the first published edition. It’s a demanding undertaking, that. In the first place because it’s usually anything but easy reading someone else’s handwriting. And this was extremely close read. I’d read three words in the manuscript and then move my eye to that first published edition and read the same three words. And of course you’re looking for changes, alterations. You can imagine the eye strain. I could only do about 90 minutes a day. But it’s a very interesting undertaking. Because what it means is you’re effectively looking over Dickens’ shoulder when he’s “correcting the proofs”, as the saying goes. What are the proofs. He will have sent the manuscript off to the printer. They will have set it – produced a printed version. That printed version is called the proofs. The proofs go back to Dickens and he reads through them. Proofreads them – that’s where the word “proofread” comes from. He corrects them, makes sure they haven’t made any mistakes, makes any changes he wants to make, etc.
So, yes, you’re looking over Charles Dickens’ shoulder while he’s working on the proofs of A Tale of Two Cities. That in itself is pretty exciting if you’re a bookworm. And when you find a difference between what he wrote in the manuscript and what’s there in the first published edition, well, that’s like panning for gold and spotting a gold speck.
But it gets better. In this case. What happened to me personally, there in the V & A, with that manuscript. At three places in the manuscript I noticed that the page “felt funny”, felt different. Those pages felt a little bit heavier. They felt thicker.
I thought, “what’s this?”
And then I realised. Normally when Dickens decided to change something in his manuscript he would cross out what he’d first written and interline. Fancy word, it just means above (or below) the crossed out bit he’d write the revised words. The words he wanted to replace what he’d crossed out.
But in three instances – the three I’m talking about – the changes he wanted to make were so substantial that he got a blank piece of paper and pasted it over the passage that he wanted to rewrite. And then he did rewrote. He wrote his revised version on the blank piece of paper.
Thrilling moment for me. I remember it so well. Sitting there in the beautiful reading room, the light streaming in through those tall windows. And there on the desk – in front of me – a priceless manuscript. The manuscript of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. And I’d discovered something about that manuscript. I knew something about it that nobody else knew. I knew that underneath those “paste over” pieces of manuscript were three passages that Charles Dickens had written that nobody, except for Dickens himself, back in 1859, had set eyes on. It was my personal Howard Carter moment. (Howard Carter was of course the Egyptologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb.) I took the manuscript up to the desk, summoned the head librarian, and said, “look at these three pages – see how they’re thicker – they’re thicker because they are two pieces of manuscript stuck together. What he first wrote is underneath the stuck on layer. If you can get your conservation department to lift off the topmost layer – we (notice, the pronoun, I was so careful with that pronoun, I made sure it was plural) – if you can get your conservation to lift off the topmost layer we will have brought to light something tht Charles Dickens wrote that no one has ever seen before.”
About six weeks later the letter from the V & A came thudding into my mailbox. “Dear Mr. Tucker, the material you requested to see are now ready for your inspection.’ It was so British, so formal – I loved it.
And sure enough, I toddle along to the V & A and there it was. My discovery. And if you think about it, it was my Alvin Whitley moment. It happened to me at about the same time in my life that it happened to him in his life. I suppose you could say, I’d become my own undergraduate hero.
And lots of good things came from it. I of course had no trouble getting it published. It was maybe the best Dickens find of the decade. And there’s no question but it set me up very nicely for my viva, the oral defense of my Ph.D. thesis. Publication – that’s the ultimate validation – in acadaemia.
Anyway, that’s the white-hot core of the tale. Already there are quite a few connections there. Looking back to that favourite professor and to Keats and Hampstead. And of course there are further convergences, not the least of which is I came to this country, I’m in this country – this is home now, it has been for a very long time – because of Charles Dickens. Indeed, Charles Dickens was my entree to London Walks. Ian, who owned London Walks at the time, didn’t want an American guide. But I knew a little bit about Dickens. And London Walks does a lot of Dickens Walks.
So, yes, a coming together, a pull together. A seminal moment in Boy David’s life. Now I’ve got to lay this down and head off to 31 Hans Place, the address where a seminal moment took place in Boy Browning’s life. He was born there.
Keep well, everybody. Buck up. Days are getting a bit longer. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to break the surly bonds of house arrest. Drive the wooden stake into the black heart of Covid.