December 2009 Issue
Jolly Good Fellowship
Fans of Charles Dickens celebrate the noted author’s work 365 days a year.
Tis the season to have a Dickens of a time.
It’s December, so that means the celebrated British author’s redemptive holiday fable, A Christmas Carol, is everywhere: Ebenezer Scrooge is taking center stage in community theater productions across the country. Classic adaptations starring Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Bill Murray and Mr. Magoo fill cable television screens. And a new animated 3-D movie, featuring the voice of Jim Carrey, recently opened at the neighborhood Cineplex.
But to the Cleveland Public Library’s Kathy Broz, Charles Dickens is more than a Yuletide tradition, meant to be packed away in a few weeks along with the mistletoe, holly and wassail bowl. For 25 years, the librarian has presided over the Cleveland Dickens Fellowship: She and 30 other devotees meet regularly to discuss the 19th-century author’s life, times and works.
Broz became acquainted with the writer while a seventh grader at Roxboro Junior High School in Cleveland Heights. After watching a made-for-TV version of David Copperfield, she headed for the library to read more about the plucky orphan who triumphs over adversity.
“I couldn’t believe the world that opened up to me,” Broz recalls. “The characters were so compelling and vivid. The story was thrilling and amazing.”
The teen was hooked. She voraciously read her way through 15 Dickens novels, as well as a smattering of his short stories and travel journals. For her 14th birthday, Broz asked her parents for, and received, a membership to The Dickens Fellowship, a worldwide association of enthusiasts who share an interest in the author. Founded in 1902 and headquartered in London, the organization has 48 branches around the globe, including 21 in the United States. Its mission: to promote and foster an appreciation of Dickens’ works through historic preservation of the buildings and books he’s associated with, and sponsor programs for members.
Over the next decade, Broz’s affinity for the writer’s timeless classics never waned. In 1984, she founded Ohio’s only branch of the fellowship. Members congregate once a month, September through June, at the Mayfield Regional County Library in Mayfield Village. They discuss Dickens’ books (last year, the group read Bleak House; this year, it’s Hard Times) and explore themes and plot lines. Participants prepare and present papers on a variety of topics, ranging from “Dickens and Poe: The Perfect Manic Depressive” to “The Circus and Other Victorian Entertainments” to “Utilitarianism and Its Influence on ‘Hard Times.’”
This summer, the chapter hosted the worldwide fellowship’s annual conference, which brought 100 Dickens’ fans from as far away as Greece and Germany to Cleveland.
They spent a week attending literary seminars at Case Western Reserve University, cruising the Cuyahoga River along the same route the author traversed by steamer in 1842 while visiting Ohio, and watching screenings of Roman Polanski’s 2005 take on “Oliver Twist.”
Faithful admirers can’t get enough of their esteemed author. That’s because, they say, the material — which was written more that a century ago — remains relevant.
“With Dickens, there’s never a dull moment,” says Dick Michel, a retired attorney who’s been a member of the Cleveland chapter for eight years. “His hatred of hypocrisy and insights into human nature continue to resonate.”
And, Michel adds, Dickens’ fictional protagonists often mirror modern-day real-life newsmakers — from the pompous preacher in Bleak House, who resembles former TV evangelist Jim Bakker, to the unscrupulous financier in Little Dorrit, a banker not unlike Wall Street embezzler Bernie Madoff.
For Walter Zborowsky, a social worker who helps disabled children and adults, Dickens’ stories strike a personal chord in their defense of the poor and downtrodden.
“In a sense,” says Zborowsky, a charter member of the Cleveland chapter, “he was a social worker who used his literary abilities to address and try to solve the problems of his day — and ours.”