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What the Dickens? A fun first reading in Vancouver

Who knew that spontaneous combustion was a topic of discussion in 1840s England? Last night, while participating  in an inaugural group reading of A Christmas Carol at the home of friends in Vancouver, I found out that Charles Dickens used this term in his book.  


After hot cider, homemade black bean soup, and lots of tasty cheeses and snacks at a delicious pot luck dinner, my husband Frank and I joined thirteen others on chairs in an informal circle in the living room of our friends Randy and Vicki. Vicki provided two large, modern, hardcover copies of the 1843 Dickens classic; this version, written in the author’s original prose, offered period illustrations by Arthur Rackham, and was published by Arcturus Publishing Ltd in London, Eng., 2009.


Vicki had marked off the text in roughly three-page segments in both books. She began the evening as the first reader, drawing on her theatrical training to emphasize words with her hand in the air, her ever-shifting intonation bringing narration and characters to life. While one person read, the next followed along with the second book, ready to jump in and continue  as soon as the previous reader was through. This two-book approached ensured a seamless transition between every reader.


It was fun to hear how four male voices and ten female voices each added their own spirit and character to Dickens’ self-described “Ghostly little book.” I had never fully appreciated the author’s humour until I heard a roomful of people laughing frequently at his colourful diction and descriptions. I noticed that he used the word “capacious” (roomy) three times. One reader stumbled over the word “execrable,” which is a fancy way of saying “shitty.” As someone said after the reading: “Wordy old bugger, wasn’t he?” Yes, he certainly didn’t follow George Orwell’s much-later rule of not using a ten-dollar word when a five-dollar one will do.


I was surprised at some of Dickens’ phrases, ones that we still use today and might dismiss as cliches, such as “dead as a doornail” and “kith and kin.” He used the word “ain’t” throughout but spelled it without an “i.” Even now, his language still felt vibrant and relevant  — the mark of great literature.


A reading of A Christmas Carol was reportedly Dickens’ farewell performance on March 15, 1870 in London. He died soon after at age 58.

December 19, 2010 at 6:39 pm
1 comment »
  • December 20, 2010 at 10:26 pmJake de Villiers

    Hi Heather, that was fun, eh?

    About the word “an’t”. This word doesn’t mean ain’t and isn’t pronounced that way. It is a contraction of “am not” and “are not” and was the later development of one of my mother’s favourite words, “amn’t”. It predates “ain’t” by some fifty years – my Shorter Oxford cites the first usage as 1706.

    Further explanations of this and other contractions is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contractions_of_negated_auxiliary_verbs_in_English

    Seeya, Jake

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