Free Library of Philadelphia

By Edward G. Pettit

The conviviality of the Dickensian world is nowhere more apparent than in Dickens’s Christmas books and stories. From Mr Pickwick celebrating at Dingley Dell to Scrooge offering Bob Cratchit a talk over a bowl of smoking bishop, Dickens knew that Christmas “was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness.” Dickens himself always celebrated the holiday with feasting, games and a brimming bowl of wassail punch. Join us as we ring out the Bicentenary Year of Dickens by toasting the Inimitable Boz at his favorite time of the year at our final Drinking with Dickens event

Years before the Cratchit Family was hip-hip hooraying their Christmas goose and pudding, Dickens had written about the Christmas that Mr Pickwick and his friends celebrated at Dingley Dell. They feasted and danced and told stories and drank many a bowl of punch. From Chapter 28 of The Pickwick Papers:

'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.' 'Our invariable custom,' replied Mr. Wardle. 'Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.'
Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.
'Come,' said Wardle, 'a song—a Christmas song! I'll give you one, in default of a better.'
'Bravo!' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Fill up,' cried Wardle. 'It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.'
Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado—
My song I troll out, for Christmas Stout,
The hearty, the true, and the bold;
A bumper I drain, and with might and main
Give three cheers for this Christmas old!
We'll usher him in with a merry din
That shall gladden his joyous heart,
And we'll keep him up, while there's bite or sup,
And in fellowship good, we'll part.
In his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide
One jot of his hard-weather scars;
They're no disgrace, for there's much the same trace
On the cheeks of our bravest tars.
Then again I sing till the roof doth ring
And it echoes from wall to wall—
To the stout old wight, fair welcome to-night,
As the King of the Seasons all!'
This song was tumultuously applauded—for friends and dependents make a capital audience—and the poor relations, especially, were in perfect ecstasies of rapture. Again was the fire replenished, and again went the wassail round.
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to one and all.  May you never be boiled in your own puddings with a stake of holly through your hearts!  
Edward Pettit is the Charles Dickens Ambassador for FLP’s Year of Dickens and writes about his adventures in Dickens at



Tags: Charles Dickens, Rare Book Department, Year of Dickens

Portrait engraving of Charles Dickens by Edward Stodard, after a drawing by S. Laurence with a small portrait of Fanny Dickens, 1836.
Portrait engraving of Charles Dickens by Edward Stodard, after a drawing by S. Laurence with a small portrait of Fanny Dickens, 1836.
Hablot Knight Browne, The Goblin and the Sexton, 1873, illustration for <i>The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club</i> by Charles Dickens.
Hablot Knight Browne, The Goblin and the Sexton, 1873, illustration for The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens.
Hablot Knight Browne, Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle's, pen and ink on paper. Illustration for <i>The Works of Charles Dickens, Household Edition</i>, 1873.
Hablot Knight Browne, Christmas Eve at Mr. Wardle's, pen and ink on paper. Illustration for The Works of Charles Dickens, Household Edition, 1873.

Tonight's opening of Paint The American Eagle marks the Free Library's first foray into hosting and co-producing a production for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  The partnership with local playwright and producer Reuben Wade is particularly fitting for the 2012 festival as the staged reading of this play is a new type of event in our popular Year of Dickens celebration.  While the show is based on Charles Dickens's American Notes, a travelogue of his journey to North America in 1842, it isn't simply a recap of what Dickens wrote; instead, it looks at the trip and his observations from the viewpoint of his wife Catherine.  And we aren't the only ones excited about the production.  Stage Magazine named it one of its top 15 picks of the festival.  Uwishunu's Fringe Festival Roundup picked it as one of the top free performances, and an article about the playwright and producer appeared on the Fringe Festival blog.

This is a chance to celebrate Dickens, the Free Library, and the Philadelphia Fringe all at once and for free.  Tickets are still available for all three performances, and groups (schools, book clubs, seniors, etc.) are strongly encouraged to attend on Wednesday afternoon.  While walk-ins are more than welcome, but making a reservation in advance will guarantee your spot in the audience.  For more information on the show and to reserve tickets, visit Paint The American Eagle on the Fringe Festival website.

Performances are Monday, September 10th and Tuesday, September 11th from 7.00-8.00 p.m. in Room 108 of the Parkway Central Library and Wednesday, September 12th from 2.00-3.00 p.m. in the Montgomery Auditorium of the Parkway Central Library.

Tags: Charles Dickens, Events at the Library, Parkway Central, Year of Dickens, theatre

Paint The American Eagle
Paint The American Eagle
Empty Chairs
By Caitlin G.

By Edward Pettit

The Vincent Van Gogh exhibition, Van Gogh Up Close, now open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been receiving lots of attention. The exhibition focuses on Van Gogh’s paintings of nature and one can see the vibrancy in color and texture of our everyday world  that the artist illuminates.  Van Gogh also brought this same urgency, this same blazing brilliance to mundane objects like chairs

And one chair that inspired him was an engraving by Luke Fildes of “The Empty Chair” of Charles Dickens.  Fildes had been illustrating Dickens’s last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, when the author died.  As a tribute, Fildes painted a watercolor of Dickens’s work space: the writing desk in his study and the now empty chair, prominently displayed, never to be filled again.  Fildes’s watercolor is on permanent display (along with Dickens’s writing desk) in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

An engraving of Fildes’s “Empty Chair” was published in the journal Graphic (as well as many other magazines).  Van Gogh was an ardent admirer of illustrated journals (including Graphic), especially in their dedication to social realism in art.  Van Gogh greatly admired Fildes’s painting (and may have first seen it in Graphic) and even owned a copy of the engraving.  For Van Gogh, the empty chair symbolized the coming absence of the artist.  He wrote “Empty chairs—there are many of them, there will be even more and sooner or later there will be nothing but empty chairs.”

But for me, this kind of melancholic fatalism doesn’t come across in Van Gogh’s chairs.  His chairs have a pipe, flowers, books, a candle perched on their seats.  These mundane objects are hopeful in a way, placeholders waiting for the eventual return of a sitter.  And maybe that can serve as a blithe reminder for Fildes’s mournful chair.  Maybe the Empty Chair is welcoming, inviting us to have a seat in Dickens’s imagination and enjoy the works he created while seated there. 

Join us all year as we metaphorically sit in Dickens’s chair.


Edward Pettit is the Charles Dickens Ambassador for FLP’s Year of Dickens and writes about his adventures in Dickens at

Tags: Charles Dickens, Rare Book Department, Year of Dickens, art

Samuel Luke Fildes. The Empty Chair, 1870.
Samuel Luke Fildes. The Empty Chair, 1870.
An Unsolved Mystery
By Caitlin G.

by Edward Pettit

Tonight our Dickens Literary Salon will be discussing the author’s final, incomplete mystery novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  SPOILERS AHEAD

When Edwin Drood goes missing it is assumed that he has been murdered. Edwin’s uncle and guardian, John Jasper, is the choirmaster of the Cloisterham Cathedral, but Jasper is also secretly in love with Edwin’s fiancée, Rosa Bud. To cast further suspicion on Jasper, he is also an opium addict, often visiting the squalid opium den of Princess Puffer. However, many of the other characters in the novel are unaware of Jasper’s secret lives, and when Jasper casts aspersions on Neville Landless as the killer of Edwin, some readily believe it. Enter into the town of Cloisterham, one Dick Datchery, a white haired, eccentric newcomer to the town, who seems to be investigating the disappearance of Edwin. Unfortunately, at this point in the novel, Dickens died, leaving his readers with just half the novel complete and all the mystery still to solve. 

For more than 140 years, various authors and critics have tried to solve the mystery. At our Dickens Literary Salon, we’ll do the same. But just over forty years after Dickens death, some readers assumed Jasper must have murdered Drood, so they put him on trial. On January 7, 1914, The Trial of John Jasper, with eminent writer and Dickens critic G.K. Chesterton as judge, George Bernard Shaw as foreman of a jury that included such writers as W.W. Jacobs and Hilaire Belloc, was held at King’s Hall, Covent Garden. The proceedings were published and you can read the transcript of the trial here:

The participants in this mock trial agreed beforehand that Mr. Grewgious could not be called as witness by either side (lucky for the defense) and that hearsay evidence would be allowed. Opening statements were read and witnesses called: Durdles, Crisparkle, Helena Landless, Princess Puffer, Bazzard (who in this trial is assumed to have been Datchery in disguise). 

At the close of the trial (after four hours and twenty minutes), the jury revealed that they had already come up with their verdict during the luncheon period: Jasper is guilty of Manslaughter, but not murder because no body had been found. I love the way it all ends:

The Prosecutor: I should like to urge that the Jury be discharged for not having performed their duties in the proper spirit of the law. We have heard from the Foreman that the verdict was arranged in advance, and I decline to accept that verdict, and ask for your Lordship's ruling.

The Foreman (GB Shaw): The Jury, like all British Juries, will be only too delighted to be discharged at the earliest moment: the sooner the better.

Mr. Chesterton: I want to associate myself with my learned friend.

Judge: My decision is that everybody here, except myself, be committed for Contempt of Court. Off you all go to prison without any trial whatever!

Just a few months later, the Philadelphia Branch of the Dickens Fellowship decided to hold their own trial of Jasper at the Academy of Music on Apr 29, 1914, as a charity benefit for various hospitals  This trial was presided over by an actual judge, PA Supreme Court Justice John P. Elkin. The Attorney General of Pennsylvania and another judge were prosecutors and a congressman represented the defense. George W. Elkins (the father of William McIntire Elkins, whose library is preserved in the Rare Book Dept of the FLP) was a member of the jury.

You can read it here: The book also contains photographs of the participants.

The Philadelphia trial acknowledges the British trial adjudged by Chesterton, however Jasper had since escaped to America where he was caught and will now be retried in an American court of law. Also, according to the introduction of the published transcript, the British trial of Jasper “instead of satisfying the public, only left confusion more confounded and added to the uncertainty already existing. Not only did the English people declare that the verdict meant nothing, but the entire Dickensian world protested that Jasper should have been convicted of murder, or else acquitted. He was guilty, or not guilty, and a verdict in the Pickwickian sense would never do, even if Bernard Shaw were foreman of the jury which rendered such a verdict.”

The Philadelphia trial began with the choosing of the jury. Some prominent literary Philadelphians not chosen from the pool were Ellis Paxson Oberholzer, A.S.W. Rosenbach, and Charles Sessler. 

The very funny proceedings are rife with in-jokes for those familiar with the novel. When the first witness, Canon Crisparkle, is called by Mr. Bell, the Prosecutor, Mr. Sapsea objects:

I protest against the Canon taking the stand, sir. I am the first citizen of Cloisterham.

Mr. Bell: Do you insist upon your prerogative, sir?

Mayor Sapsea: I do, most positively.

Mr. Bell: All right, Dogberry, take the stand.

(Mayor Sapsea takes the witness stand.)

Mr. Bell: What quadruped in the animal kingdom do you and Dogberry typify?

Sapsea: Not a jackass, like counsel.

After a five-hour trial the jury retired three times to deliberate: 6-6 tie, 9-3 for acquittal, and finally 11-1 for acquittal.  After all, no body had ever been discovered. The American jury did not believe Jasper could be convicted without first proving that Drood was really dead. 

Tonight, at our Drood Literary Salon, we won’t hold a trial (I have to agree with the Philadelphians: where’s the body?), but we will, Datchery-like, tramp the streets of Cloisterham to discover what happened to Edwin Drood. Was he murdered? Who could have done it? Join us as we investigate (and solve?) the mystery of Edwin Drood. 

Edward Pettit writes about his adventures in Dickens at

Tags: Charles Dickens, Rare Book Department, Year of Dickens

Monthly Part Cover of Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Chapman & Hall, 1870.
Monthly Part Cover of Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Chapman & Hall, 1870.

When Charles Dickens died suddenly of stroke in 1870 he had written half of a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Dickens published all of his novels in serial format and wrote the chapters sometimes just weeks before they were published.  So when he died with Drood only half written, it really was just that, only half written.  Any half-finished novel by Dickens would have long fascinated readers, but Drood was a murder mystery, and the questions of the half-finished mystery have long tantalized readers and writers to know whodunit.  Who murdered Edwin?  Was Edwin even murdered?  Many books have been published over the years, some attempting to finish the novel and some laying out the facts of the case. 

Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens is not a continuation of Drood, but rather a fictionalized account of an investigation by Dickens’s American publisher James Ripley Osgood.  Osgood attempts to discover Dickens’s intentions for finishing Drood, but becomes involved in a much more dangerous conspiracy involving opium smugglers, publishing pirates and murder.

The Last Dickens, like all of Pearl’s novels (The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and the brand new The Technologists), is also a finely researched work of literary history.  We walk the streets with 19th Century writers and publishers and see their world as they saw it.  Pearl’s novels are like literary time-machines, showing us the moments of creation of the greatest literary works and giving us an insight to what it was like for the first readers of those works. 

On Tuesday night March 6, Matthew Pearl will be visiting the Free Library of Philadelphia to talk about Dickens and Drood and how he recreated this moment of literary history.  Hope you’ll join us.

And the following week, on March 15, our Dickens Literary Salon will be discussing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Do you think Edwin was murdered?  Who do you think did it?  Come join us for a lively discussion in the beautiful Elkins Room in the Rare Book Department.

-Edward Pettit

Tags: Charles Dickens, Events at the Library, Rare Book Department, Year of Dickens

Matthew Pearl
Matthew Pearl
The Last Dickens
The Last Dickens