by Martha Rosso
February 7, 2001
revised and updated
by Patricia Vinci
March 26, 2006
Early in the year 1907, there appeared in the shop window of Charles Sessler, a Philadelphia dealer in rare books and prints, a sign reading as follows:
“All interested in Charles Dickens are invited to attend a meeting to be held in St. James Hotel, 13th and Walnut Streets, object being to form in Philadelphia a Dickens Fellowship.”
As a result of this invitation, together with announcement letters and newspaper notices, a meeting was held on January 23, 1907 at the stated place, and the Dickens Fellowship’s Philadelphia branch was brought into being two weeks later, on February 7, 1907.
As it was originally organized, the Fellowship was seemingly a gentleman's club, with its rolls bearing the names of those of the masculine persuasion with a high social standing. This exclusiveness was strikingly illustrated on the occasion of a performance staged by the Dickens Fellowship in 1914, at the Academy of Music, a mock trial based on Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The cast of characters and participants read like a Who's Who in Philadelphia, being composed of the leading political, legal, industrial and civic figures of the day, among them the mayor of Philadelphia, the Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and such-like citizens of worth and distinction. The by-laws of the Fellowship did not specifically exclude women. There was a women's auxiliary that they could join, and women could also attend meetings as guests on special occasions. As decades passed and the charter members began to die off, their widows started to be accepted as members in their own right. Eventually there were no restrictions as to sex, or, indeed, any other restrictions or requirements, save a love of Dickens and his works.
From the beginning, the Fellowship met monthly except for July and August, the meetings taking place in the evening at various places able to accommodate them: hotel public rooms, men's clubs, literary society halls, restaurants, etc., until fifty years later, in 1957, when the moving feast finally came to a permanent resting place in the social hall of an historic center city church -- Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. Soon after moving to Holy Trinity, the Fellowship switched from evening meetings to afternoon ones, with a catered lunch served prior to the meeting. The lunch feature began as a convenience for people who came from a distance, but it has since become so popular that lunch seems to be an equally important aspect of the meetings (emphasizing the Fellowship half of our name), and people are not inclined to come for the programs alone. The programs for the meetings are usually prepared and presented by the members, with the president conducting the meeting and providing continuity, making announcements, etc.
Several meetings have become traditionally out of the ordinary; the Christmas meeting, for example, has evolved from a long tradition of members dressing up as characters from Dickens’s novels to the playing of games, music, theatrical skits, magic shows, dancing, and other Victorian frolics popular surely with Dickens and his contemporaries.
Another special meeting is the February one. A luncheon commemorating Dickens’s birth is arranged at a center-city restaurant, with visiting guest speakers. These speakers are professors of English from local universities, officials from headquarters and other branches, writers, Dickens impersonators, and other professionals with a special interest in Dickens. A traditional ceremony at the Birthday Lunch is the recognition of persons who have rendered unusual service to the Fellowship over the previous year, and the awarding of the Medal of H.O.L.D. (Honorable Order of the Lovers of Dickens).
For many years it was the custom prior to the Birthday Lunch to lay a wreath on the statue of Charles Dickens and Little Nell in Clark Park, Philadelphia. This impressive bronze sculpture representing Dickens seated in a raised chair, looking thoughtfully down at Little Nell standing at his knee, is said to be the only statue of Dickens in the world. In recent years this ceremony has been conducted by a neighborhood association, which has taken the care of the statue as its unique responsibility. Members of our branch annually join with them in the festivities.
A June outing completes the year's schedule. This is held at a place of interest in the city or suburbs such as a historic house or a park, any place interesting with facilities suitable for a picnic and program, as well as shelter in case of rain. The theme of picnic programs is "not necessarily Dickens," and includes all sorts of presentations: comic songs, riddles, games, pantomimes, poetry recitations, and sometimes even something on Dickens. Probably the most succinct address at a picnic, titled "A Comprehensive and Statistical Report on Bathrooms Mentioned in Dickens's Works," consisted of but three words: "There weren't any."
Occasionally the Fellowship will meet in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which contains quite an extensive collection of Dickens books, letters, manuscripts, and memorabilia. His writing desk and chair are there, as well as his pet raven, "Grip," stuffed and preserved, which after a recent rejuvenation has been pronounced in excellent health, as dead birds go, and likely to outlast us all.
The Philadelphia Fellowship's present membership numbers over one hundred persons, a good half of whom are actively involved in attending meetings and participating in programs. The other half are scattered worldwide: England, Canada, Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware, New York, West Virginia, California, Texas and Ohio.
Probably the chief binding agent of the Fellowship is its monthly newsletter, The Buzfuz Bulletin, which takes its name from that of the presiding magistrate at the Pickwick/Bardell breach of promise trial. The Buzfuz Bulletin is especially serviceable to the many members who cannot attend the meetings due to infirmity or distance.
The Fellowship has always been active in charitable drives, and maintains a Tiny Tim Fund for the purpose of giving books to sick or handicapped children at Christmas. During World Wars I and II, the Fellowship sent food and other necessities, including candy, to fellow members in England to distribute to families with children.
Beginning in 1919 and continuing throughout the 1920's and 1930's (since then sporadically), the Fellowship has been host to several conferences of North American branches, and has itself sent delegates to conferences in the United States, Canada, and England. Group tours were arranged to visit English branches in 1963, 1977, 1984 and 2000. Nearly every year, several members on an individual basis attend the Annual International Conference of the Dickens Fellowship, which is usually hosted by an English branch on a rotating basis with other branches throughout the world. The Philadelphia Branch hosted the 101st annual International Conference at the University of Pennsylvania from July 19-24, 2007.
The Fellowship maintains close relations with its parent headquarters in London, based at the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, with a steady interchange of visitors and communications. The current president of the Branch's Executive Council is Patricia Vinci, who serves with Dr. Jay Friedlin, the President Emeritus, a Vice President, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and eight Board members. The Board meets regularly to plan programs and steer the Fellowship on its continuously successful course.