Winner of Free Library of Philadelphia contest will portray Charles Dickens for a year

Posted: November 14, 2011

RYAN SEACREST ain't seen nothing like this.

To kick off its Year of Dickens, the Free Library of Philadelphia will host "Dickens Idol" tonight, a cutthroat competition to find the best actor to embody literary great Charles Dickens at a bonanza of events planned for next year.

The lucky doppelgänger will appear at many of the Free Library's Year of Dickens events, such as "A Dickens of a Christmas" along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill; "Drinking with Dickens," during which fans can imbibe the same brews Dickens would have sipped; and performances of some of Dickens' better-known works. (Dates are still being set for most events.)

Why the celebration here for a British author who died in 1870? Because 2012 is the 200th anniversary of his birth. And because Janine Pollock, head of the Free Library's Rare Book department, calls its Dickens collection one of the finest in the world. The bicentenary is a chance to show off the letters, manuscripts and original drawings from artists who illustrated his novels.

The library even has Dickens' pet raven, Grip - yes, the actual stuffed bird. Grip was the inspiration for a character in the serialized mystery Barnaby Rudge, and possibly Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." (Poe reviewed Rudge, saying that the raven character could have been put to better use. Later, he wrote his own creepy tome.)

"The first half of the year will be the gems of the collection, just showing [Dickens'] work and how he related to his friends though correspondence," Pollock said. "The second half of the year will be devoted to Dickens and the theater."

Dickens, born in 1812, wrote such classics as A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. He wanted to be an actor and once had an audition with a major producer but was too sick to attend. Dickens subsequently became a newspaper journalist and then a novelist whose work was serialized in London papers.

"We owe a lot to him being sick," Pollock said. But Dickens' theatrical interest makes "Dickens Idol" an even more fitting start for the celebration. Though it might also prove that Dickens himself would have been an even harsher judge than former "American Idol" arbiter Simon Cowell.

The library's collection is not Dickens' only Philly connection. The Dickens statue in Clark Park was previously the only monument to the author in the world (another one was recently unearthed from storage in Sydney, Australia).

Dickens also visited Philadelphia in 1842 and was fascinated by Eastern State Penitentiary, spending seven hours at the famed Fairmount prison and lingering in an area where prisoners were charged with making shoes. In his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, the character Dr. Manette is obsessed with making shoes, a skill he learned in prison.

Facts like these will be expanded on during a planned "Dickens in Philadelphia Tour" led by self-proclaimed literary provocateur and La Salle professor Edward Pettit. Readers will also get to dig deeper into Dickens' work with a literary salon on the third Thursday of every month beginning in January, and author events with Wesley Stace and Matthew Pearl.

Yet another reason to celebrate Dickens is the fact that his work is still relevant. "It's got its flaws," Pollock said. "But it's still hilarious; it still has power."

Free Library, Central Branch, 1901 Vine St., 10:30 a.m. today, 215-686-5322,

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