I've always felt rather eccentric given the stories going on in my head and my unusual perspective of things going on around me. Even among other writers I always felt a little weird. Then I began studying the life of Charles Dickens and felt strangely validated as a writer. Through studying his life and his works, I have learned many amazing things that are thought-provoking and worthy of noting. He was and is a truly amazing man! I hope you enjoy this journey of discovery with me. ~Anita

Monday, December 17, 2012


Anita Stansfield

Dickens is dead, to begin with. There can be absolutely no doubt about that. It’s not that I personally have any evidence of his demise. I was not around to see the body, or to attest to the fact that he had been physically alive, and subsequently dead. However, I trust the historical accounts of many reliable individuals who have reported the details of the death of Charles Dickens, followed by his burial at Westminster Abbey. I can certainly make a logical assessment based on simple facts to assure myself that he is, indeed, dead. Dickens died in 1870, so it’s not likely that he somehow faked his death as a joke and has been in hiding all these years. I must reasonably conclude then, that Dickens is dead. And yet, the spirit of his work continues to delightfully haunt this world, especially at Christmas time.
A Christmas Carol, in one form or another, has been a part of my Christmas celebrations from my earliest memories. My father struggled with chronic depression, and there were times when it could be very difficult to make him smile, or to even see any hint of a pleasant expression. But I remember well how he enjoyed watching those old black-and-white versions of A Christmas Carol, and how it would make him smile, sometimes chuckle. I had no comprehension at the time of how gifted Dickens was at delicately interlacing humor with pathos. He could tug your heartstrings, frighten you, and make you laugh, all in a matter of minutes. While I was well aware of the story and its popularity through my childhood, it wasn’t until 1980 that A Christmas Carol reached into my heart, jumping from its previously passive position into one of the most prominent aspects of celebrating the greatest event in history.
I had been married only a couple of months as we settled fully into the Christmas season. It was a year of many firsts. Among them was my crossing a line that put me into a closer realm with my two older sisters who had both been married for many years. The two of them lived close to each other and did many things together, and now that I’d come out of the single and dating category, we became more of a threesome. On a Saturday a couple of weeks before Christmas, my sisters invited me to attend a matinee of a film version of this beloved tale that they’d seen in the theater the year before. It was titled simply, Scrooge, and it starred Albert Finney. When I heard it was a musical I actually felt a little skeptical, but my sisters both gave rave reviews which encouraged me.
My new husband was working that day, and I went to one sister’s home before the movie to make banana bread that I intended to give as Christmas gifts to friends. While my sister and I worked together in the kitchen, with some of our favorite Christmas music playing in the next room, we talked and laughed and shared memories of our childhood Christmases. We could hardly talk about early Christmases without recalling the way our brother Nathan had been given a bag of dried beans to scoop up from the carpet with a toy loader, to be hauled by a toy truck. We were looking forward to the traditional Christmas day brunch at our parents’ home, and knowing that even though we were all adults, Santa would still be filling stockings for us that would be hung out on the fireplace in the livingroom where we had all spent our childhood.
I remember that my banana bread didn’t turn out very well. I’d been exposed to some minimal cooking and baking lessons through my growing years, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it. The results that day were somewhat questionable, and it barely came out of the oven—perhaps a little doughy in the middle—before it was time to go.
One of the most distinct memories of that day was the fog. I’d spent my entire life in Utah Valley, and I’d never seen such fog. It had settled over the valley and remained there for weeks. It made driving difficult, especially after dark, and many people complained. But I liked it. I felt as if I’d been transported to London. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but now I think it was somehow fitting that my memorable Dickens experience that day was surrounded by fog. Now I know that he wrote a great deal about fog, and he used it both to set the mood and to create metaphors. So, metaphorically speaking, this day has maintained a kind of magical sense in my memory, enhanced by the fog that seemed to hold all of the present realities and concerns in life at a distance. I was content to just be surrounded by fog that seemed a tangible representation of the Christmas spirit in the air. Barely into adulthood, I hadn’t spent any time pondering the desire to hold onto that magical feeling of Christmas that was such a big part of my childhood. But I remember feeling it that day.
As we settled into the theater with our popcorn and other treats, a musical overture began to play that went on for several minutes before the film actually began with the ringing of many bells. What followed had very little similarity to any film version of the classic tale that I had seen previously. It was full of vibrancy and celebration! The story that I had grown up with took on more depth and meaning with this original presentation. While honoring Dickens’ story very well, the music felt clearly inspired and added a magic to it that I’d never experienced before. I became utterly engrossed with characters I had believed I’d known well, but I was now seeing deeper into their experiences. There was something about this version that emotionally tugged my heart into the profound depth that I know Dickens intended but had often been skimmed over. I’d never before realized how truly poor Bob Cratchit and his family were, or how deeply damaged Ebenezer Scrooge had been from his childhood. I’d never before noticed that it was a story that illustrated the stark comparison between wealth and poverty, and the injustice that was taking place when those who had more than enough were not willing to share it with those who were suffering.
I learned through passing years as my fascination with A Christmas Carol grew, that much of Dickens own suffering and struggle were laced into this story. He’d been severely damaged in his childhood, and he’d known both abject poverty and wondrous wealth. But the poverty had forever scarred him. No matter how much money he made, he felt afraid of losing it and forcing his family into the horrors of workhouses and debtor’s prison that he’d endured as a child. I believe Dickens saw a little of himself in Scrooge, and that Scrooge’s change of heart expressed an ideal that Dickens himself would have liked to achieve. But whatever other messages may have been woven into the tapestry of this story, the blazing glory of it is clear and simple. The truest theme of A Christmas Carol is rooted in the most simple and basic Christian truths. Be kind to all people. Give of yourself. Share what you have to ease the suffering of others. And of course, it’s possible for men to change and to put their pain behind them. And yet these messages are so delicately intertwined, that the presence of them is one of the elements that classifies this story as a masterpiece. The very fact that the story does not boldly declare Christianity, and yet it is continually implied, offers the tale comfortably to all people everywhere with messages that are timeless and universal.
As a writer, I have pondered and analyzed this great work over and over, and the absolute inspired genius of it always leaves me in awe. But the real power behind the story is something that’s difficult to analyze, and I first felt it that Saturday in 1980 as I sat there in the theater, utterly mesmerized and transported to another realm. I’ll never forget the feelings that filled and surrounded me as the film ended: a stark contrast of disappointment that the movie was over, and a hovering residue of the Christmas spirit that connected the tender memories of my childhood to the hopes and dreams of a new life before me. It was dusky when we came out of the theater, and the fog had become heavier. But I loved the mystical sense it had given our surroundings which helped me hold onto the magic I had felt.
After leaving the theater, we went to a local Bed and Breakfast that was a restored Victorian home. The establishment had started a tradition of having a Christmas open house. Together my sisters and I explored the beautiful mansion’s exquisitely decorated rooms as if we were children. The Christmas decor added a magical appearance to the already lovely Victorian furnishings and accents. I recall that the house smelled like Christmas, and it was easy for my imaginative brain to conjure up possibilities of what might have taken place amidst these walls in decades past. Christmas music was being played on a beautiful grand piano in the parlor, and pleasant refreshments were served. While taking in the magic of this experience , the ethereal residue of the movie we’d just seen hovered with me, and yet I had no comprehension of how the impressions of that day would impact my life and my work. Nearly three decades later, I can look back and see how something both creative and spiritual was awakened in me that day. My fascination with Dickens and his works has blossomed recently, and I’ve found myself learning a great deal about life and writing by studying what is written by him and about him. I’ve enjoyed incorporating some of what I’ve learned into a new series of novels, and hope that others lives will be touched for good yet again through Dickens’ influence on me.
To my knowledge, Scrooge didn’t play in the theater any more after that year, and our desire to repeat the experience eluded us. The film played occasionally on TV, but segments were edited, and the commercials were so annoying. It was a great day when it finally was available to purchase as a prerecorded video, and eventually it evolved to a DVD. Over the years it has become an integral part of our Christmas celebrations. The tree, the scented candles, the nativity, the carols, the family activities, the food, and Scrooge. I play it over and over. It accompanies me while I wrap gifts, decorate, and clean house. It’s usually the first movie of the season that I watch, and the last. We have a rule in our home that Christmas music and movies can’t be played until after Thanksgiving, and not after New Year’s Day. For us, this helps keep them more precious and the Christmas spirit they incite doesn’t become diluted. (The only exception to this is when I’m writing Christmas stories and I need inspiration.) In recent years, we’ve started watching Scrooge the evening of Thanksgiving day, after dinner is cleaned up and we’re winding down. It’s become our official kickoff of the Christmas season.
My adult life has been filled with many struggles and challenges, as well as many joys. My husband and I share five children now who are moving into adulthood and starting their own families. But the first Christmas gift my married children received was a DVD copy of the musical Scrooge. And the kids all agree: Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the music, the humor, the tenderness, and the messages of this film filling the house. Of course, the true meaning of Christmas is the most prevalent aspect of our celebrations, just as striving to live Christ-centered lives is something I try to focus on every day, and I strive to make it my highest priority in teaching my children the lessons of life. And that’s just the point, the messages of A Christmas Carol echo my deepest beliefs, not just at Christmas, but always. Because I’ve come to know the story so well, there are lines of dialogue that often resonate in my mind or even pass through my lips at moments when they seem to be teaching me something related to whatever might be happening in my life. The most prominent of those has become a part of my daily life. Mankind should be our business. These words help me keep perspective when there are so many different pressures tugging at me from all sides. It is being there for others in need that should be my highest priority.
I look forward to meeting Charles Dickens someday, or maybe I already have. I like to imagine the possibility that we both belonged to some organization of writers before we were born to this earth life, that we encouraged each other as we were creating spiritually the stories that we would one day see into mortal fruition. Either way, I know our inspiration comes from the same source, and I hope to one day have the privilege of personally thanking him for the personal suffering he endured in order to create a story that would impact this world more than any other piece of fiction.
I realize that Charles Dickens is dead. There can be absolutely no doubt about that. But while his spirit lives on in another realm, his work endures as a testament of his deepest beliefs. And I gratefully add my own by echoing his words. God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Masterful Article

Given my most recent lengthy stretch of being in semi-hibernation, it recently occurred to me that there was a masterful article written about Dickens near the time of his 200th birthday in February, and I had intended to share it here and had completely overlooked it. Whether you are a Dickens fan or not, this is truly great and I hope you'll take the time to read it HERE.

Since February 7th when the great bicentennial celebration of his birth took place (getting a lot of hoopla in London, I hear) we have now passed June 9th, which is the anniversary of his death. Given how difficult his life was, I wonder if he might consider THAT date more worth celebrating. He's now been dead 142 years, and I like to think of him very busy in the writing and artistic circles of heaven.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Curiosities of the Old Curiosity Shop

Just last Sunday on my local PBS television station, they showed a version of “The Old Curiosity Shop” which was made just a few years ago. It stars Derek Jacobi. You might not know him by name, but many people would see him and think his face is surely familiar. Ironically, he was in the movie “Hereafter” where he played himself, and he was doing a public reading from a Dickens novel.

Anyway, I must confess that TOCS is not my favorite Dickens tale, and watching it again reinforced my feelings. However, I was actually surprised at how my respect and understanding of the story had changed since I’d seen it a few years ago. I’ve also seen another, older, much longer version on film, but given the depressing nature of the story, I think I prefer the more abridged version. Depressing, yes. Powerful, most definitely! Moving and worth seeing, absolutely! It’s certainly no more depressing than any given episode of Law and Order, a show that I’ve only watched now and then when illness has made me desperate for something that will make my mind expand a bit, and I always love the solving of a mystery, and the exploration of the human experience. What continually amazes me about Dickens is his vast understanding of the human experience, even at a very young age. He actually wrote Oliver Twist in his twenties. His twenties! I have children in their twenties, and I love them but I know they don’t have that much wisdom and insight. Ironically I recently came across (quite by accident, except that I don’t believe in coincidences) Oliver Twist on TV and rewatched it, as well. Given that it has no romance in it, and it also has some very difficult circumstances, it is on that list of my less-than-favorite Dickens stories. But I was surprised and amazed at its depth and power. And it has a delightfully happy ending.

Back to TOCS. I was quite blown away by the absolute pertinence the story has for today. Some issues are timeless, I suppose. But it’s the story of a sweet young teenaged girl (Little Nell) whose grandfather (her sole guardian) gambles away everything they have and Nell is reduced to working, then begging in the streets, and suffering all kinds of horrors because her grandfather (who is basically a good man and loves Nell) is so controlled by his addiction that he is destroying himself and her.

Now I am going to give away the ending, except that anyone who knows anything about Dickens already knows this because it’s a well-known story. Little Nell dies in the end. The first time I learned this story, I was furious over Nell’s death. I had words with Mr. Dickens. Whether or not he heard them or cares about my opinion I can’t say. But over time, I have learned more about life and more about the author’s life. For Nell, the ultimate happy ending was for her to be released from the horrors of this mortal life. It was the only truly possible ending for her that could be happily ever after. And Nell’s death brings her grandfather to his senses and he begins a path of redemption.

Addictions are destroying families right and left in the world we live in. So, given the big picture, I found this story and its film adaptation well worth the time in trying to understand, and have compassion for, the victims of addiction that I come in contact with.

In the end, I would highly recommend sharing this film with my readers. Click the picture to go over to the PBS website, and you can even watch it online!

All in all, being a devout Dickens fan, I feel in awe and mightily proud of him for writing a story with such depth and insight that would still be applicable a century and a half later.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday Dickens!

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

And this is not just ANY birthday! The great author was born 200 years ago today! In England they’re actually having some pretty significant celebrations. I truly wish I was in London right now, but alas my budget won’t have it, my body couldn’t handle it, and I’ve got a book to write! However, just for a while today I think I’ll curl up and watch some of my favorite scenes from the miniseries “Bleak House,” which was made for Masterpiece Theater on PBS. A-ma-zing!

When I began my exploration of Dickens’ works, I quickly realized that I didn’t have time to indulge in such long, deep novels, but I realized almost as quickly that there are some excellent film versions of his stories. Something else I discovered as I have watched and rewatched these films, is that his lesser known works are actually rather romantic. You won’t find much romance in “A Christmas Carol” or “Oliver Twist” but I believe that deep down, Mr. Dickens was a hopeless romantic.

If you’re up to reading his novels (I have some friends who have loved them) I would recommend “Our Mutual Friend,” or “Little Dorrit,” as well as the above mentioned “Bleak House.” Remarkable stories with happy endings. I’m fascinated with the way he can take so many different characters and situations which might not seem to have any connection at all, but then you begin to realize threads are being woven together, and in the end, every single character and situation were necessary to bring the complicated plot to its fruition. Poetic justice abounds. Everyone seems to get exactly what they deserve. But be prepared for two extremes: his humor jumps out when you least expect it AND the villains are genuinely terrifying at times. I would love to hear comments on anything you’ve read or seen, or if you embark on reading (or viewing) any of his works, I’d love to hear about that too!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Young Charles

When Dickens was very young he began hanging out a great deal in the theaters of London, and he loved everything about that world. In considering a career, he made a firm decision that he would be an actor. He was VERY good at it! I’ve read many quotes from people who knew him in those early years who said that he could mimic anyone, and he was quite naturally a very dramatic person. He studied and practiced very hard while attending to his day job as a court reporter for a London newspaper.

Young Charles was thrilled when he got an audition with THE man in London who had the most influence in theater. He felt certain this was the beginning of a great career. But Dickens never went to that audition. He got a horrible cold and was so sick and stuffed up and puffy eyed that he was unable to meet the appointment. Years later he told his best friend, John Forster, that the outcome of that day had greatly influenced the course of his life and career.

In spite of his huge success as a writer, Dickens remained very actively involved in theater. He wrote some theatrical productions, acted in some of them, directed them, and sometimes even made the sets. He was incredibly resourceful and ambitious and had a lot of energy! There’s a story that during one of those theatrical adventures, one of the stage hands made a comment to him that went something like, “We in the theater business was sure sorry when you took up writin’.”

I laughed out loud the first time I heard this. Oh, the irony. He was world famous as a writer at the time. Imagine the world without the writings of Charles Dickens! I wonder how many times in our own lives it feels like something goes wrong and ruins our plans, when in fact, it’s the very thing that will get us on the right course to fulfill our own destiny.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Champion of the People

In our day there’s hardly a person who doesn’t know the name Charles Dickens. He’s best known, of course, for writing the powerful classic “A Christmas Carol.” And his other most famous works include “Oliver Twist,” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” Many lines from his work have become commonly quoted as clich├ęs. Who can’t relate to the well-known words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times?” But what most people don’t realize is that Dickens didn’t just write about social injustice and the plight of the poor, he was very devoted to actively doing something about it. This is something that will surely come up more in my future writings on the inimitable Mr. Dickens, but there’s a particular thought I want to share with you now.

In the book “Dickens” by Peter Ackroyd, in talking about his burial in London, he writes, “His grave at Westminster Abbey was left open for two days. At the end of the first day, there were still one thousand people outside waiting to pay their respects. So for those two days the crowds of people passed by in procession, many of them dropping flowers onto his coffin - ‘among which,’ his son said, ‘were afterwards found several small rough bouquets of flowers tied up with pieces of rag.’ There in the ragged bundles of flowers, no doubt picked from the hedgerows and fields, we see the source and emblem of Charles Dickens’s authority. Even to the labouring men and women there was in his death a grievous sense of loss; they felt that he had in large measure understood them and that, in his death, they had also lost something of themselves.”

I continue to feel deeply touched by this story. When we pass from this world, who do we want to be remembered by, and what do we want to be remembered for? Dickens himself stated that his writings would tell who he was; people didn’t need to know anything more (or words to that effect). That may be partly true, but it is important to know that he stood for what he wrote and he wrote about what he stood for. As a writer, I hope to endeavor to do just a little bit of the same.