Dickens fest ties present, past, future
Galveston’s Victorian revelry draws novelist’s family, conservation focus
Ollie Dickens’ first lesson in family history came from the Muppets, donning Victorian dress, acting out his great-greatgreat-grandfather’s famous novel: A Christmas Carol.
“We didn’t really know Dickens was a real person,” he said.
Years later, Ollie Dickens, a London-based actor, gave his own interpretation of grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation into a generous man during a performance Saturday at Dickens on the Strand, a Victorian festival in Galveston’s historic district. Yards away, his cousins signed autographs and posed for photos with dozens of fans.
The Galveston Historical Foundation started Dickens on the Strand 45 years ago as a way to draw interest to the then-abandoned blocks that formed the 19th century business district. Tourism and historic preservation remain the festival’s major goals, with Charles Dickens personifying that spirit, but the Dickensian aspects of the festival are a draw for some.
Over 100 people, among them Dianne Brazell, stayed for a full hour to watch Ollie Dickens’ reading of A Christmas Carol on Saturday afternoon in the make-pretend “Trafalgar Square.” Acrobatics, a Queen's parade, and Victorian bed races were among the dozens of other shows.
Brazell, 61, got Ollie Dickens' autograph after his show, and she plans to frame it alongside a photo they took together.
“This is the heart of the festival,” the retired high school English teacher said. “It just legitimizes (the Dickens theme) and makes it special.”
The historical foundation has been inviting Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandchildren to its annual festival for 43 years, when author and art historian Lucinda Dickens Hawksley said her father first came to Galveston. Hawksley, who’s written several books about Charles Dickens and other 19thcentury figures, has been flying down from London to celebrate her family history for at least 10 years.
Regular festival-goers have started to recognize Hawksley and her cousin, Jane Dickens Monk, who also attends every year. The historical society pays for their airfare and lodging, and they get to see dolphins in December — a tradition for their Texas visits.
“It’s a charity that’s worth supporting,” Hawksley said. “Architecture and restoration are so important, because if you forgot all the old buildings, you forget the history.”
In particular, the pair were affected by the Bishop’s Palace, an ornate Victorian mansion. Like most of the island’s historic buildings, the nearly 20,000square foot house was threatened by development before the Galveston Historical Society purchased it in 2013.
“It would have been really criminal if that had been knocked down,” Monk said.
Far away from their family’s home, Hawksley and her cousin, Jane Dickens Monk, often are asked to sign old copies of Charles Dickens’ novels, and they find their own history in the pages.
“One thing that’s really lovely is you get people bringing back books that they have been bringing here — or their parents have been bringing here — for 45 years,” Hawksley said. “Every now and then, Jane will see one signed by her father, and I’ll see one signed by my father. Neither of our fathers are still alive, so it’s really moving when you see that.”
The cousins, who attend multiple Dickens festivals each year, said Galvestonians are especially keen to collect signatures. Some of the books they sign have seven or eight family members’ names already within their pages.
That enthusiasm isn’t limited to collectors: Ollie Dickens was delighted by the energy, costumes, and theatricality of the festival. He said he’d never seen anything like it at home.
“America does festivals better than everyone else, with all the love and the exuberance” compared to the more reserved — and cold — English festivals, Ollie Dickens said. “It could be a Dickens novel, this festival.”
And for many people, watching or a reading Charles Dickens’ work also denotes the start of the holiday season. Lisa Newton, 54, said it’s already a family tradition to watch the 1984 A
Christmas Carol movie. This year, they’ll also drink something out of a newly purchased recipe book,
Drinking with Dickens , by descendant Cedric Dickens — Jane Dickens Monk’s father.
“It’s living history, and it’s a connection to Christmas and this time of year,” Newton said. emilyr[email protected]
Members of the Kingwood Park High School Madrigal singers take a lunch break from singing holiday carols during the Galveston HIstorical Foundation’s Dickens on the Strand festival. Today is the last day of the festival.
With furrowed brow, Joseph Gibson, 7, kept his eyes on his brother, Peter, as they perform.