For my last post, I wanted to reflect on how we continue to pay tribute to the overall legacy of Charles Dickens, and in looking up how people remember him, I discovered, to my surprise, that Dickens is actually the centerpiece of a theme park in Kent, England, called Dickens World. I grew up (and still live) 20 minutes away from Disneyland, so theme parks were an essential part of my childhood. I found it really interesting that out of all the authors that have ever existed, Dickens is the one that people chose to recreate into a theme park, especially because his books (unlike, say, Harry Potter) are not inherently magical or necessarily optimistic.
This discovery led me to this article from the New York Times, published a few years ago. Dickens World has now fallen on, pardon the pun, hard times. Upon visiting the theme park, the author of the article and Dickens enthusiast, Sam Anderson, realized he didn’t feel that it was necessarily satisfying, nor did he get what he was hoping to get out of it. Anderson says, “The park doesn’t fail because it’s too commercial — it fails because it’s too reverent, and reverent about the wrong things. It treats Dickens as an institution, when what we want is what is gone, or what survives only in the texts: the energy, the aura, the spirit.”
Thinking about commemorating Dickens in the form of a theme park is so strange to me. When I think about theme parks, there is a certain level of feeling engulfed in escapism, fantasy, and childhood nostalgia. I’m not sure when others first became exposed to Dickens, but I don’t believe he writes about issues that inspire escapism to Victorian England or nostalgia for Dickensian social conditions. Like Anderson says, it feels quite odd to treat the Dickensian world as a institution to revere.
I am reminded of a recent interview that featured Trevor Noah, the new host of The Daily Show. He talked about his dislike for exposed brick as a design choice. When he first moved into Jon Stewart’s office, he had others cover up the exposed brick in the office. Because he grew up poor, exposed brick was never a style choice; it was just what everyone had because they couldn’t afford to plaster the walls. He found it odd that rich people purposely choose to expose brick, as it was such a significant marker of poverty for him.
Thus, I bring this back to Dickens World, in connecting the idea of paying to experience stylized poverty. It is truly baffling the longer I think about it. It makes sense to pay for an experience of fantasy and imagination like we do for Disneyland, but for Dickens to be an author that people find so powerful that they want to pay to experience poverty in Victorian England…Well, that is just something else. On the one hand, I can sympathize with desiring to feel physically and visually connected to the world of our favorite authors. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d choose to volutarily experience Oliver Twist’s life growing up. The theme park is an incredible testament to Dickens’s continued popularity though.