Posted on Mon, Feb. 17, 2003

Breathing new life into classics
The Dickens Fellowship not only honors the author, its members do good deeds in his name.

Inquirer Staff Writer

Scratch that bit about the worst of times. Clearly, this was the best of times.

About 60 people sat in Strawbridge's ornately carved Pickwick Room six floors above Market Street, as Cecile Mann began to act out a story:

A banker delivered startling news. A young lady swooned. A Parisian rebel led them up a back stairway and into a locked room. There, in the dim light, sat a white-haired man. The prisoner of the Bastille.

On and on, Mann read. The sunlight slanted more steeply through the stained glass windows. The kitchen clatter ceased.

Almost an hour went by, and still they were rapt. A few dabbed at their eyes.

They had spent these past moments with a god named Charles Dickens. A man "dead as a doornail," as he once wrote himself, these last 133 years.

In a way, he's very much alive for members of the Dickens Fellowship, this region's branch being the second-largest and the second-oldest - but assuredly the best, they say - in the world.

Most have read his novels three or four times. They go abroad to conferences. They meet monthly in Philadelphia just so they can talk about him.

"This group is very serious about Dickens, and that's what I like most," said Tom Walsh, a computer programmer from Burlington. "They're not there to gossip. It's business, and the business is Dickens."

Or if they do gossip, it's about Mr. Pickwick or Miss Havisham. Some, Walsh said, "have lived with these characters for so long, they talk about them like they're real people."

They trade Dickens trivia and know all about his two visits here. (He wrote it was "a handsome city, but distractingly regular. ... I would have given the world for a crooked street.")

Once a year, in February, they have a birthday party for the "Shakespeare of the novel," as they call him, whose Scrooge and David Copperfield and Oliver Twist helped right the wrongs of his world.

This year, it was his 191st. They raised their glasses as Patricia Vinci of Warminster proposed a lengthy toast to "the Immortal Memory."

Vinci, the group's first female president - they didn't even admit women until after World War II - nearly danced around the room.

"You've run into a real Dickens die-hard," she said. "That's me." (She tried to get him onto the cover of Life magazine as the Man of the Millennium, but she failed. "And now look at them. They're defunct.")

Ellie and Paul Trumbull of Mullica Hill, Gloucester County, wore their Victorian best. Philadelphia's Rochelle Christopher, also in period clothes, sat knitting like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, the novel they're focusing on this year. (When they finish all 15, they just start over.)

Many wore gold medals on red ribbons around their necks.

This is Martha Rosso's doing.

A member since 1967 who started reading Dickens as a child, the Upper Darby woman initiated the H.O.L.D. awards - Honorary Order of the Lovers of Dickens, given to members who, well, just do good stuff related to Dickens.

"It's a secret society," Rosso whispered. "So secret we don't know the rules ourselves."

They do like to have fun. Only the week before, a group went to Clark Park in University City to sing "Happy Birthday" and place a wreath on what happens to be the world's only known statue of Dickens.

(He said he didn't want any statues, but nobody told the sculptor, which proves that surprising coincidences aren't limited just to Dickens' fiction.)

Philadelphia is a good spot to be a Dickens fan. The Free Library's Rare Book Department, which just ended a Dickens exhibit, has 1,200 of Dickens' letters, signed first editions of his novels, a writing desk, and a taxidermy specimen: his pet raven, Grip, who croaked, so to speak, in 1841, after inspiring a character in Barnaby Rudge.

The members debate hopefully whether Dickens is on the upswing. There's a big conference in April at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Stanford University has begun offering a serialized version of Great Expectations, just like in 1860. They figured 500 people might sign up. They got 7,000.

The local fellowship is certainly going strong, 96 years after its founding by bookseller Charles Sessler. Back then, it was a gentleman's club for various honchos, including the mayor.

When Vinci joined in 1970 - "I just got this wild obsession for Dickens" - a friend warned she'd be the only one under 70.

"And I think I was," she said. "All these old people... used to come in from the Main Line, all dressed up. Here I was, a 25-year-old secretary."

Today's 100 members are more eclectic, although most are at least middle-aged.

And they don't mind gushing. Dickens "creates a whole world," said Kathy Donch, a first-grade teacher from Haddonfield, who started bringing her mother about 10 years ago. "You're just drawn into it."

The members report with pride that "Cedric" comes to meetings when he's over from London. That would be Dickens' 86-year-old great-grandson. To them, no surname is necessary.

Every Christmas, they donate books through their Tiny Tim Fund to the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsey - near Clark Park, it turns out. There's a bit of internal dissent because they don't give Dickens titles, but they are realists.

Dickens does have a way of ensnaring folks. Mann, a Newtown Square actress, did her first Dickens reading just a few years ago. Now she specializes in them. "I became fascinated. ... His characters are amazing."

There's so much to love - his pathos, his humor, the way he carries on with his descriptions.

Sandy Bauers' "A Tale of ..." appears on Mondays. Contact her at 610-701-7635 or

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