Great expectations heaped on the descendants of Charles Dickens

 

THIS THURSDAY in Kilkenny two of Charles Dickens’s direct descendants are helping to stage a play about the life of the 19th-century writer. One of those present will be actor Gerald Dickens, who will perform his one-man show, Mr Dickens is Coming,at Kyteler’s Inn for one night only.

Dickens has been putting on shows based on the life and work of the renowned author for decades, yet this is his first time to perform in Ireland. His sister, Nicky Dickens Flynn, who has lived in Kilkenny for more than 25 years and currently owns the Kyteler’s Inn, facilitated the show.

They are two of the great great grandchildren of Charles Dickens. “The Dickens family is a very large clan,” explains Flynn. “Charles had 11 children and we come down from the eighth [child]. Some of them died young and some died without offspring. Many of the surnames have changed and we are down to the last few.”

Having Dickens as a surname brought its own pressures when they were youngsters, especially in academic terms.

“When I was growing up at school, they had Charles Dickens’s books on the curriculum and you’d be expected to know everything about them,” Flynn says. “I went the other direction and read a lot of Thomas Hardy.

“There would be a lot of people who know a lot about Dickens – professors and the like – and they’d be asking you questions. My brother loved all that though, it is what he does.”

Flynn doesn’t use the Dickens part of her name much anymore as she has taken her Irish husband’s surname.

“I did use it and I put a family tree up in the bar. People would look and they’d see I was related to Charles Dickens, but they’d think I was making it up. Plus I don’t look like Charles Dickens – my brother does though and he has the beard as my father did. They look like him.”

Gerald Dickens does indeed have the look of a 19th-century literary gentleman about him, judging from his publicity shots. His show is a mixture of biography and characters from the books. He also uses diary entries, letters and his observations to piece together aspects of Dickens’s life. There’s a big audience for his work in the US, and he is particularly busy in the lead up to Christmas.

“Our parents were very good in that they never forced Dickens onto us as children,” Dickens says. “I remember my father saying one day, ‘You will discover Dickens, but up to then do whatever you want to do’.

“It was never a burden or a responsibility. I only came to appreciate his work through theatre, which I was always involved in from the age of eight or nine. We went to see a production in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Nicholas Nicklebyas a family. It was on New Year’s Eve and lasted eight hours. It was the first time it all made sense to me. It was from then on his work started to make an impression.”

Each year the extended Dickens family tries to get together. Many of them are involved in publishing or journalism. They all last met up at a production of Oliverin the West End. But the family has not benefited financially in a large way as a result of their literary relative. Dickens worked mostly as a journalist so the copyright was often owned by publications for which he worked.

“There aren’t huge royalties every time A Christmas Carolis read,” says Flynn. “A lot of the artefacts in the family, which were passed down to us, are on permanent loan to the Charles Dickens Museum in London as a fairer way for them to be seen.

“What we have in the family is a lock of hair, a travel pouch and a decanter.”

Next year will be the bicentenary celebration of the birth of Charles Dickens so all the family will gather at Westminster Abbey for a special service.

Until then, Kyteler’s Inn in Kilkenny is about as close as any devotee will get to Dickens’s life.

“Dickens himself toured Ireland very successfully, to Dublin, Cork and Belfast,” says Dickens. “The thing with the show I’ve always tried to do is not make it heavy or like a lecture. Even though it is Dickens, it is theatre and it is fun and that’s the key to it.”