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Tag Archive: Charles Dickens


Review by C.J. Bunce

Arsenic and Old Lace?  Truth is often stranger, darker, and more insidious than fiction.  Where the classic horror comedy dramaticized the historic use of arsenic as poison via elderberry wine, a routine use of the substance killed an incalculable number of people, probably at least in the tens of thousands, over the course of a little more than a century.  Imagine everything around you right now that is printed in the color green is printed with an ink which, if you brush against it, inhale it, touch it, or ingest even a minute amount of it, would kill you violently?  A recent scholarly account weaves together a tale of 18th-19th century science and psychology, beauty, style, and design, products liability and corporate greed, political cartoonists and iconic leaders of art history, and a scholarly account of an artform and staple of the arts and crafts movement in the most unlikely of collisions with day-to-day life.  Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home is a book about wallpaper.  And it could be the most surprising and intriguing book you read this year.

At one level Bitten by Witch Fever could be a useful tool–included in its pages are facsimiles, and thankfully only facsimiles, of 275 color wallpapers from the 19th century.  It’s almost unprecedented and an ideal sourcebook for the period, for local or commercial set decorators, or for any artists and designers attempting to recreate in any medium the average household of the day or the most opulent business setting.  Yet each of the papers represented was tested by current scientists to include arsenic.  Predominantly tied to greens of a century of wallpaper style and taste, ultimately arsenic would be worked by designers into a broad spectrum of the color palette.  But mankind has known the harm of arsenic going back to ancient times, right?  It’s the complexity of the “Why?” that art and social historian (and Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter) Hawksley wrestles with in revisiting the use of arsenic in all its forms: as domestic poison, as health tonic, as pigment enhancer, and as murder weapon, and its rise in production with the rise of fashion of decorative wallpaper.  But why “witch fever”?  That reference in the title was from a comment by apologist William Morris–the arts and crafts movement innovator artiste–who also inherited from his father one of the few mines that produced arsenic.  To brush off arsenic safety scaremongers, he had responded, “As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever.”  In part, the realities were fuzzy: many people lived with wallpaper with no ill effects, and yet others sleeping in a closed room with wall-to-wall arsenic coated papers would become violently ill.  Hawksley identifies cases of alleged crimes, court cases, alleged murders, and attempts to halt arsenic use.  Throughout the 19th century political cartoonists drew cartoons mocking the public’s continuing use of the poison in daily life.  Many of these cartoons are also included in the book.

The horrors were real:  young siblings die after pulling wallpaper off their walls and licking off the strange flavor.  From an ancient Greek physician using arsenic as an antiseptic to Nero using arsenic to murder Britannicus, to Napoleon rumored to have died in exile from arsenic poisoning, to the death of a Swedish king and the Borgias, the history of the substance crosses borders and social strata.  A few countries were quick to ban its commercial use, while factories where it was used were slow to address safety issues for workers.  In 1775 chemist Carl Scheele’s new green was so vibrant that the real fever was very much public fascination with new, beautiful colors.  It was used on walls, but also in flypaper, flocked papers, rodent and insect poison, asthma and eczema cream, as a Victorian aphrodisiac, face creams and soaps, artificial decorative fruits and vegetables, dress fabrics, mail labels, playing cards, all sorts of product packaging, and (gulp) cake icing coloring, candy, and lickable postage stamps.

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This one looks like it could be the next holiday classic.

Although he’s had theatrical roles in 2013’s The Fifth Estate, 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, 2016’s Colossal, and this year’s Beauty and the Beast remake, Dan Stevens is better known for his British TV roles like Matthew Crawley throughout the run of Downton Abbey.  But the genre world really took notice of Stevens this year when he headlined a new X-Men TV series, playing David Haller, a crazed wielder of superpowers on FX’s new series Legion.  His next role takes him back to jolly old England and a character that can’t possibly be more classic and British: Charles Dickens himself.

Although the last time we saw someone play the part of Charles Dickens in a major film it was Gonzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Stevens’ off-kilter, frenetic kinetic sense, and quizzical expressions make for an intriguing take on Dickens in the first preview for The Man Who Invented Christmas.  Stevens looks like he’s channeling Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein in one scene from the movie’s first trailer.

And we get to see Academy Award-winning actor and Shakespearean great Christopher Plummer (Twelve Monkeys, Up, Wolf, Dragnet, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Somewhere in Time, Return of the Pink Panther, The Sound of Music) join the likes of Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, and Bill Murray as Ebenezer Scrooge.  This take on Scrooge focuses on Dickens writing the novel A Christmas Carol and getting a spell of writer’s block.  And speaking of Finney, the view of the film in the preview looks like a mash-up of style from the comedies Tom Jones and Shakespeare in Love

Here’s a fun preview for The Man Who Invented Christmas:

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Kermit in A Muppet Christmas Carol

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

Audiences have loved Charles Dickens’s yuletide ghost story, A Christmas Carol, for 171 years, and it’s been committed to film at least 50 times.  It’s hard to dispute the status of 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, or surpass Patrick Stewart’s masterly performance as the cruel miser in the 1999 television adaptation.   But for annual, feel-good holiday fun, our money is on The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Released in 1992 and representing the first of several retellings produced by the zany puppets & crew, The Muppet Christmas Carol also boasts a strong human cast.  Most notable, of course, is Michael Caine (Batman Begins, Get Carter) as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a turn that is just the right balance of humbug and humor.

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge

The Muppet version brings all the elements you expect from A Christmas Carol, from dead-as-a-doornail business partner Marley, to Tiny Tim asking God to bless us, everyone… but with wonderful Muppet twists.  All your favorite Muppets are here, as well, in their expected roles: Kermit the Frog as put-upon clerk Bob Cratchitt (with nephew Robin in the roll of Tim); Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchitt, naturally; and even 1990’s standard duo Gonzo and Rizzo, taking a meta-fiction approach as tour-guide-to-the-tale Charles Dickens and a skeptical sidekick.

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By Elizabeth C. Bunce

I’m a big fan of retellings–fairy tales with a twist, new angles on old myths, the reinvention of familiar stories–and I’ve written my share of them as well.  So I was very excited to read Lee Bermejo’s (Joker) new Batman: Noelespecially after a look at the teaser pages in several of the #2 issues of DC Comics New 52 a few weeks ago hinted that it might be a Batman twist on everybody’s favorite reworked Christmas story, A Christmas Carol.

First, the art in Noel is gorgeous, and particularly evocative are Bermejo’s wintery cityscapes.  Gotham (at least the way Lee Bermejo draws it) is a natural fit for Christmastime in the City, and the whole book has a bittersweet air of urban nostalgia–It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, with a haunting, decayed edge.  It’s a perfect fit for an update of Dickens’s Victorian London.  Colorist Barbara Ciardo’s muted, misty colors only enhance the gothic mood of the art and are equally beautiful.  Likewise, Bermejo’s rendering of classic characters is lush and satisfying–particularly noteworthy here are his images of Robin and Catwoman.  It’s a physically beautiful book, and it’s a pleasure just to look at it.

Less satisfying for me was the story.  Granted, with a property as familiar as A Christmas Carol, reinventing it–and doing it really well–is a tremendous challenge.  And, in a lot of ways, Bermejo succeeds.  The Batman-Scrooge mashup is surprising at first, but in that take-notice way, and, in Bermejo’s hands, turns out to seem quite natural.  Seeing our hero Batman/Bruce Wayne cast as the villain in need of redemption is an inventive twist on the theme.  The Batman mythos is so rich and already steeped in backstory, and Bermejo has a lot to work with here, and, on the whole, does it pretty well.  Casting canon standbys as Dickens’s classic spirits is part of the fun of a retelling like this, and Bermejo clearly enjoyed playing with this aspect of the tale (especially clever is his choice for Spirit of Christmas Present).  It’s clear Bermejo understands both his source material and his current Batman toolbox, and has no trouble blending them.

So what doesn’t work?  Well, for me, the book is almost killed by the heavy-handed narration, which matches neither the subtlety or inventiveness of the rest of the book.  It’s as if Bermejo was concerned that we wouldn’t get it, unless he reminded us on every page that Batman = Scrooge (and, even worse, “Scroogey”).  I’m typically a fan of this sort of conceit, and the Dear Reader touch certainly evokes the Victorian classic, not to mention the legacy of hard-boiled detective noir of the Dark Knight himself.  But in Noel it just detracts from a story we already know, and from the artful execution of the retelling.

Still, a second flip through the book was just as enjoyable as the first journey, and Bermejo gets high marks for ambition.  Although I didn’t love it like I wanted to, Noel is a clever and worthy addition to the Christmas Carol tradition, and a great gift for the Batman fan on your list who already has Hush: Unwrapped.

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