Readings at the Spa by Dickens’ son

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by Jeannie Swales

Picture the gaslit excitement – in late Victorian Scarborough, fans of the novelist Charles Dickens assembled at the Spa Theatre to hear readings of his works given by the great man’s son.

To mark Father’s Day this coming Sunday, this week’s exhibit is a playbill for that memorable event.

Dickens himself, of course, was well known for undertaking gruelling tours of the provinces giving readings of his works.

But when he died in 1870, the baton was taken by his eldest child, also called Charles Dickens, but known as Charley.

Born in 1837, the young Charley had set out on a career as a businessman, but, it seems, wasn’t cut out for it. After a failed business venture, aged just 32, he was taken on by his father as sub-editor of All the Year Round, the weekly magazine which Dickens senior founded after he fell out with the publisher of Household Words, which had serialised his works alongside those of Mrs Gaskell and Wilkie Collins.

After Dickens’s death, Charley inherited the magazine, becoming its editor. He also wrote new introductions to posthumous reprints of some of his father’s books, and made his own name as a writer of dictionaries, including Dickens’s Dictionary of London and Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames.

In the summer of 1886, Charley visited the Spa Theatre in Scarborough to give two nights of readings from his father’s works. On August 11, he read Doctor Marigold, a short story about a ‘cheap-jack’, or hawker, who adopts a deaf girl; and an extract detailing the trial from The Pickwick Papers.

The following evening, the audience was entertained by The Story of Little Dombey, culled by Dickens from his novel Dombey and Son, and described by him as a ‘performance fiction’; and Mr Bob Sawyer’s Party, another condensed extract from Pickwick.

The programme is described as ‘embracing some of the most interesting of the Selections arranged by the great Novelist for his own Readings’. Audience members paid from one shilling in the ‘pit’ to four shillings for the orchestra stalls – the latter being the equivalent of around £22 today. The ticket price included free entry to the ‘Grounds’ of the theatre from 6.30pm, with the performances starting at 8pm.

Charley died in 1896, aged just 59, after suffering with leukaemia. Poignantly, his sister Mary, known as Mamie, who was a year younger than him, died just three days later, and the siblings were buried on the same day.

The playbill is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or (01723) 384510.