.. I’m gonna live forever. Nope I’m not writing about learning how to fly high, apologies. But yesterday I headed over to check out the Dickens Journals Online exhibition which for two weeks only is running in the Old Gaol Museum in Buckingham. It’s a celebration of the digital and physical resources which make up this mammoth project (curious to know more about DJO, check out the website or for the latest on DJO and digital Dickens have a look here). With information on All the Year Round, Household Words, Dickens, and his pals.
But one section of the exhibition grabbed my attention in particular and it starred this bloke – who would, if it wasn’t for his slightly tenuous literary connection, be consigned only to the memories of his distant relatives.
However, as it is he happened also to work for Dickens. Fame! Yes, that’s right – like many others following the death of Dickens he was able to cash in on his new found fame. Billed as Dickens’ Office Boy, this office boy for Charles in his All the Year Round years goes by the name of Frederick Edrupt. As the article makes clear the connection to Dickens albeit real is exciting stuff and readers are told that Mr Edrupt can be located on Sundays at Temple Gardens which for some reason prompted the vivid picture of Durdles and Deputy in the initial graveyard and rock-throwing scene in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Yes I know this is neither a graveyard nor cause for a stoning. Perhaps it’s the thought of approaching someone pottering about in their natural environment only to assult them with questions (on in Deputy’s case – the “hideous small boy”) about their art or past. I mean stoning a stonemason, really. Or maybe it’s the description of Edrupt wandering the gardens pointing out interesting things to visitors, though that makes him sound much more like Tatar and his collection from the past which woos his avid audience. Or at least makes they cheeks turn a Rosa shade.. Ok fine. Maybe pushing it a bit. But I give no explanation for the odd mental connection.
The case of Edrupt is representative of many who by luck or circumstance could lay some claim to a connection with Dickens. It was by no means a new phenomenon then, and remains a big thing today. Not just with Dickens of course. Anyone with any kind of fame that you have met, spoken to or (even more impressively) are related to in some manner or other will earn you impressed oohs and ahhs from friends, colleagues and family. It reminds me of my sister’s brilliant statement the other day when she announced to me mid phone-call that Ariana Grande is her best friend. The celebrity culture is such that we think we really know these people. We take an active interest in their lives and revel in knowing all the gory gossip driven details. A classic case of this can be seen on E! News (which if it wasn’t for my roommate’s addiction I would still know nothing about – most of the celebrities I’m interested in are long-dead, not that that stops the gossip eh Shakespeare?). Each show has a feature called “So True So False” where basically various potential rumours are shown to be, you got it either true or false. Earlier this week while baking I overheard this slot and one of the rumours, I couldn’t tell you which, they said “We don’t know”. Now not only is this great reporting (surely if you don’t know don’t report it unless you’re trying to make a point?) but it’s also indicative of our culture. Now even me, a person who can identify perhaps one in a hundred people on the average red carpet wants to know why the show doesn’t know. And that’s where people and sources that would otherwise be unknown come in.
Edrupt and his job with Dickens left him in a position many years later to share his tales with fans and enthusiasts of his old boss, to hear about the man behind the words – what he was really like. And I bet these stories were greeted by many an ooh and an ahh. A quick Google search pulls up several pages of references to Edrupt, including this article from the National Newspaper Archive. It turns out he was ambitious too and even tried his hand at novel writing, though not quite up to Dickens’ standard who, upon reading the first draft declared:
“Well, Frederick this is very good but you will never make a novelist until you learn to write in English”
To which Edrupt concluded his tale of how he ended his brief attempt of a career as a writer. It’s stories like this that serve to humanise famous figures who can often appear so distant (no thanks to the reams of criticism and material churned out about them and their excellence each year), although perhaps it is the office boy and not the famous novelist that we tend to associate ourselves with more. Dickens of course is in many senses already a relatable figure with his rags to riches tale and a life characterised (for the most part) by plenty of hard work. His journalism which this exhibition celebrates is, along with his serialised fiction, a testament to this. I don’t think you meet many journalists who regularly get a good nights sleep and plenty of holiday – they’d be no headlines if that was the case.
But back to fame and tenuous connections. Earlier this week a Shakespeare first Folio was found over in northern France. Left gathering dust this copy has seen better days but had lain unknown in a library for many years – in fact it had been categorised incorrectly as an 18th century text, once identified by Rasmussen (who luckily could hop over to France fast as he was busy researching in the British Library when he got the news), hit the headlines and so this little library in an unknown place near Calais, will be placed firmly on the map. Perhaps in years to come they’ll be brief articles in the paper telling of people who were there the day this manuscript was identified, who now work in the garden – well you get the picture, famous once again thanks to circumstance. You see it’s what you know and who you know. Potential sources – no doubt – for many research students out there. While reading books by and about the subject is great, I’m all for primary research too and where there’s someone to talk to to get the inside scoop or even just their opinion it’s well worth it. You might even bee lucky enough to be looking at someone who’s still alive and kicking and then – even better!
It’s true there’s no one alive today who knew Shakespeare (unless they’re hiding somewhere in a library too) but someone who’s touched an original copy of his work – well that’s pretty close.
And you never know what insights they might have. I’m aware that up until now I’ve focused on famous figures, that is to say the big boys of literature (or two of them) but it occurs to me that (for better or for worse) those less well known figures often gain fame by connection too. To use a basic example. C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley – admittedly both famous enough in their own rights – take some of their continued success from being known as the two other men who died the day JFK was shot. Other early modern playwrights like Marlowe, Middleton, Dekker, Ford, Webster & Co have gained prestige recently because they were writing at a similar time to Shakespeare. Wilkie Collins again successful in his own right is even more so thanks to the serialisation of his work in one of Dickens’ journals. There are of course many less famous authors with a similar situation whose reputations are both stunted by their immediate comparison to “the great..” (solidifying and limiting rather than expanding the canon) but also improved in that their works at least for this fame-factor, stay in print. We’re bombarded with these things all the time, Amazon with its “if you like this you might also like..” runs on such comparisons, and this can boost sales of less well known authors as well as infuriate the lovers of said less well known writers for the potentially damaging comparison. People are pitched as “the next…” and this isn’t always a bad thing in itself.
It’s a bit like the artists who appear on X-Factor. While they might not win they can still lay a claim to having performed in front of the nation of that show and release material on that basis. Fame is a power machine.
But just like Edrupt who happened to work for Dickens, the intern who happened to be working at a small library in Northern France, or the (as yet unknown) girl or boy about to start working for a contemporary author who in years to come might make a name for themselves, these sources can be useful to scholars yes, but more than that they ensure – just like the unnamed source or “friend” on E! News – that we get the story beyond the story. The rough trimming on the outside before it went to print and the tale of the one behind the words for those curious enough to listen in.
It’s funny isn’t it how often critics and academics can see themselves in a world far removed from the gossip rumour-driven tabloid and celebrity culture. But actually aren’t researchers to some extent driving it forward, yes the celebrities might not be popular now, or not at least popular in the sense that we want to know if they’re pregnant, who they last slept with, or if they take sugar in their coffee, but perhaps criticism and reading, researching, devoting your life even to a subject, person or thing is just the same as those who dig for dirt on whoever happens to be famous that day.
We’re all diggers really, archaeologists excavating to hear the latest gossip on whoever or whatever takes our fancy. Sometimes these ideas conflate like the Richard III and First Folio discoveries – sadly there’s no D! News yet with a regular So True So False devoted to Dickens but you only have to pick up a book or article about him.. The similarities are striking. Hardly surprising really, fame, the search for it and fascination with it is what drives much of the news. Celebrity culture and the fascination with people and their work captures the minds of everyone from the person wanting a tea break in front of the telly to the researcher (also undoubtedly with tea) digging for clues. Fame perhaps we all want to live forever or at least look at those who might. Not just connection but fascination is key. From the gatekeeper in London who worked for Dickens to the man on the street who grew up next door to JK Rowling.
We are hungry for information and perhaps deep down hungry for fame. Maybe we want to be famous (or at least remembered for something), maybe we cling to the connections we have with famous people – sharing in their fame a little – or maybe we’re just desperate to write that book about someone who was famous, is famous, or should (we think) in the future be famous and we want to share in a part of that journey. Famous figures are everywhere of course and the fascinated fans that surround them aren’t just dirt dealers, enthusiastic entertainment lovers but include everyone, even down to that scholar who seems so far removed from popular culture.. chances are they’re probably a fascinated fan of someone who they want to live forever.