Is That All There Is?*

*song by Lieber/Stoller, performed by Peggy Lee. Apparently, the lyrics were inspired by a short story by Thomas Mann, entitled “Disillusionment”.

(Painting: “The End of a Dream”, by Giuseppe Pennasilico, 1861-1940)

From the platform of Rochester Station, on this last Sunday morning in September, I can see the early stages of Hyde Housing’s Rochester Riverside development. Like so many in this area, they have borrowed from Dickens for their advertising, proclaiming “Great Expectations” for their project. It was visited in July by the new Housing Minister, who rejoices in the Dickensian name of Kit Malthouse. (Then there’s the Secretary of State for Housing, James Brokenshire, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup. Between 2010 and 2015 I could have added here, as the name of Rochester and Strood’s MP: Mark Reckless).

The day before he died in 1870 at the age of 58, Charles Dickens was working at his Higham, Kent home, Gad’s Hill Place, on “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. The novel remained unfinished, but almost the last words he wrote were about the nearby Medway town of Rochester, his favourite city, lightly fictionalised as Cloisterham:

“A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with the lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air.”.

When Charles was nine, his father pointed out Gad’s Hill Place to him as an example of what he might by hard work one day earn. The boy Dickens often walked from the family home in Chatham to look at it.

(In the present day, children’s author Jacqueline Wilson recalls as a child walking every day to shops in the Kingston Hill area with her grandmother. Outside one particular house, her grandmother would stop and say, “I’d really like to live there.” Says Wilson: “It meant the whole world to me when I was eventually able to buy it.”.

In a recent film review of “The Little Stranger”, Mark Kermode draws a connecting theme between the great house in the film of the book, and Jay Gatsby’s mansion in “The Great Gatsby” as an emblem of aspiration and longing.)

In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, with whom he had ten children.

He showed signs of disappointment as early as 1840 – in Broadstairs he flirted with young Eleanor Picken. By 1856, he was in a position to buy Gad’s Hill Place. The following year, he spotted the actor Ellen (Nelly) Ternan performing at the Haymarket Theatre, London. The daughter of actors, and born in Rochester, she had made her stage debut in Sheffield at the age of three, in 1842.

On the recommendation of his friend, actor and playwright Arthur Wigan, Dickens cast Ellen, with her mother and sister, in a performance that year in Manchester of “The Frozen Deep”. By September of that year, having seen Ellen on stage again in Doncaster, he was writing of his wife to a friend: “Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other”.

Charles began an affair with Ellen which lasted the rest of his life. He referred to her as his “magic circle of one”. In 1858, Catherine accidentally opened a package intended for Ellen, containing a gold bracelet from her husband and a note from him to the young woman. Mr and Mrs Dickens separated later that year.

In his library at Gad’s Hill, Dickens had installed a series of dummy volumes with satirical titles he had created:

Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep

History of a Short Chancery Suit (in 21 volumes)

Socrates on Wedlock

King Henry VIII’s Evidences of Christianity

The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: 1. Ignorance 2. Superstition 3. The Block 4. The Stake

5. The Rack 6. Dirt 7. Disease

Beside this stood a very slim volume entitled: The Virtues of Our Ancestors.

Several of Dickens’s female characters are said to be based on Ellen: Lucie Manette, Bella Wilfer, Helena Landless, and, in “Great Expectations”, Estella Havisham. The name of a fictional estate in this last named novel, Satis House, was also the name of a real mansion near Rochester. Queen Elizabeth I once stayed there as a guest. As she left, her host enquired if she had been comfortable. Offhandedly, she replied, “Satis.”.

Estella explains to Pip that Satis is Latin for “enough “:

“It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think.”.

The actor and comedian, Dame Thora Hird, was born in Morecambe in 1911. She first appeared on stage at the age of two months in a play her father was managing. Although she left Morecambe in the late 1940s, she continued to refer to herself as “a sand grown ‘un”, a term for anyone born in that town. She died at the age of 91 at Twickenham’s Brinsworth House, a retirement home for entertainment professionals.

Four years earlier, she had made a cameo appearance alongside Dora Bryan and Eric Sykes in an episode, “Moods”, of Victoria Wood’s comedy “Dinnerladies”, set in a components factory in Manchester. She played the sarcastic Enid, mother of Dolly. (In this episode we learn that tuna and sweet corn go together “like Morecambe and Wise”.)

Celia Imrie as Philippa, the earnest representative of Human Resources, has arranged for the canteen workers to invite a parent to a tea party – Bring Your Mother to Work. Hearing that Philippa (“I did pass Scripture”) comes from just outside Guildford, Enid offers that she went on a trip there once, but didn’t bother getting off the coach.

Unexpectedly, Philippa’s own mother, who calls her Flip, attends the event (“It’s like a film with Albert Finney”). In another surprise, Philippa’s mother and Enid bond over tea, cake and the state of the Government (dear old Ted Heath wouldn’t have run away with some silly girl).

Perhaps it was the generation gap that let Philippa down when, earlier, she chirped:

“This is nice!”, only to be crushed by Enid’s terse “Well, you’re easily suited…”

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