Video: Tale of two centuries for prized author
IN scenes beyond even the imagination of Britain's greatest novelist, the life of Charles Dickens was celebrated yesterday at simultaneous events at his birthplace, Portsmouth, and at the site of his burial in Westminster Abbey.
Two centuries after the author's birth, the Prince of Wales laid a wreath on his tombstone in Poets' Corner, while at the house where he was born, children acted scenes from 'Oliver Twist'.
A group of penny-farthing riders called the Pickwick Bicycle Club paid tribute to 'The Pickwick Papers', the story that brought him to the attention of the public in 1836.
Actor Simon Callow joined members of the public to sing Happy Birthday outside the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth.
And British Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave Dickens novels to his cabinet colleagues -- David Cameron received 'Hard Times' and 'Great Expectations'; Nick Clegg was given 'Oliver Twist'; and George Osborne was handed a copy of 'A Tale of Two Cities'.
The celebrations were also global: audiences in 24 countries took part in a Dickens 'readathon', which began with an excerpt from 'Dombey and Son' in Australia and ended with a passage from 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' in the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Charles declared Dickens "one of the greatest writers in the English language" in a statement read out at a service at St Mary's Church, Portsmouth, where the author was baptised.
"Dickens used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice," he said. "The word Dickensian instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written."
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London, one of the writer's former homes, where they listened to a reading by Gillian Anderson, who recently played Miss Havisham in a BBC production of 'Great Expectations'.
Nearly 800 people attended the wreath-laying service in Westminster Abbey, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of Dickens's unique ability to capture the human condition "by exaggeration, by caricature". He said: "The figures we remember most readily from his works are the great grotesques."
The observation was confirmed by a Penguin poll of favourite Dickens characters yesterday, showing Ebenezer Scrooge from 'A Christmas Carol' as the public's favourite, ahead of Miss Havisham, with seven villainous figures in the top 10.
The Archbishop also highlighted the author's great compassion and empathy with the Victorian poor.
"He loves the poor and destitute. Not from a sense of duty, but from a sense of outrage that their lives are being made flat and dead," he said.