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Charles Dickens at the Morgan Library

2012 January 14

Alfred Bryan (1852–1899). Caricature of Charles Dickens, 18--. Gift of Miss Caroline Newton, 1974.1974.7 Charles Dickens (1812–1870), Our Mutual Friend, autograph manuscript, 1862–65. Purchased in 1944; MA 1202–3. Image courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.

Jessica DeCoux
City University of New York

There are a few things you might want to keep in mind when visiting the Morgan Library and Museum’sM exhibit “Dickens at 200.” The first, and perhaps most important, is that the operative word in the institution’s name is “library.” While the Morgan owns an extensive collection of drawings, paintings and art objects, it is primarily an archive of written and printed materials: manuscripts, first editions, rare books and pamphlets, and printed music, among other treasures. This means that “Dickens at 200,” while it offers an assortment of objects and pictures for viewing, is primarily an exhibit of materials that exist to be read. The second thing to keep in mind is that, with one small exception, the Dickens exhibit has been created using only items from the museum’s own archives, and it serves primarily to highlight the museum’s impressive collection of Dickens’s autograph manuscripts and letters. While a varied sampling of both is provided, the exhibit is not comprehensive. Not every Dickens novel is represented, for example, nor are Household Words or All the Year Round, the two magazines the author edited. In other words, a gentle warning to any potential visitors not to be misled by the exhibit’s ambitious title to believe that you will see either an exhaustive exploration of the author’s life and work or an examination of Dickens’s influence on history and culture in the years since his death. The exhibit is less expansive than its name suggests.

That being said, there are plenty of reason to visit. First, of course, the exhibit serves as an introduction to the museum’s array of Dickensiana. It is divided into various areas labeled “Philanthropy,” “America,” “Collaboration,” “Mesmerism,” “Christmas Books,” “Story Weaver,” (a section devoted to Dickens’s writing and editing of Our Mutual Friend) and “Manuscripts and Letters” (the last one a sort of catch-all space for interesting miscellanea). Each provides a sampling of private letters, manuscripts or rare copies of books along with art; scattered here and there are a few of Dickens’s personal possessions. The experience is the equivalent of visiting a rare books reading room with a thoughtful librarian who presents you with a succession of fascinating items. It inspires a tantalizing desire to see the other, unseen prizes still resting in the archives. It also requires much reading to be thoroughly enjoyed. The exhibit fills one relatively modest room, with a separate reading room containing several copies of a facsimile edition of Dickens’s manuscript for A Christmas Carol. However, it’s possible to spend several hours scrutinizing not only the manuscripts and letters (legible typeface copies of many are provided in a booklet) but the commentary provided on placards throughout the space.

This commentary artfully ties together what might otherwise seem a scattered collection of goods. It not only explains the works at hand; it also provides valuable historical and biographical context. Woven through the commentary are references to many of the most important, or best-known, details of Dickens’s life. His work as an actor and playwright, his familial relationships and his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan, his childhood stint in the blacking factory, his penchant for long walks, and numerous other facts get mention. For anyone unfamiliar, or only partly familiar, with Dickens’s life, career or personal writing, the exhibit offers a nice initiation. My own favorite discovery came while reading Dickens’s letters relating the day-to-day happenings at Urania Cottage, the home for “wayward” women that he managed. His descriptions of the home’s inhabitants are as colorful and whimsical as the character sketches in any of his novels, and they are a fascinating expression of his idiosyncratic (and highly gender- and class-conscious) view of the world.

Of course, the best reason to visit “Dickens at 200,” and perhaps almost any other exhibit at the Morgan (and any museum at all?) is to encounter the artifacts it contains. Each new step through the exhibit brings another opportunity occupy that delicious, disorienting space created when our beloved, mythic “Dickens” confronts the irrecoverable, historical person Charles Dickens, to whisper “Dickens touched this!” or “Dickens wrote that – with his own hand!” and to marvel at the way this knowledge both gives us Dickens and takes him away. There, is, after all, no actual information on Dickens to be gleaned at the Morgan Library which can’t be accessed, with some effort, in some other way (on the Internet, in a biography, in the twelve-volume edition of his complete letters, etc.), but through the medium of the relic, that information acquires a magical, awe-inspiring charm. Anyone for whom this encounter holds no appeal, and whose encyclopedic knowledge of Dickens negates the need for a broad overview of his work, needn’t bother making the trip to visit “Dickens at 200.” All others should allow themselves the pleasure if the opportunity arises. This is the museum’s first full-scale Dickens exhibition since 1970, and there will most likely not be another for quite some time.

The exhibit will remain open until February 12, 2012. The museum also provides researchers access to its holdings throughout the year. For more information, including an online catalog, go to http://www.themorgan.org. The Morgan Library and Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, and it is open Tuesday through Sunday with extended hours on Friday evenings. Other exhibits include “Robert Burns and ‘Auld Lang Syne,'” showing until February 5.

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