Dickensian disappearances and a Southsea mystery unfold at university events

When it comes to engaging audiences with unusual aspects of Charles Dickens’ life, Portsmouth University researcher Dr Christopher Pittard has a trick up his sleeve.

The English literature senior lecturer will be revealing details of Dickens’ little-known career as a conjuror at the author’s birthplace in Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth – and he might even try a magical performance of his own.
Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum

Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum

“This is an aspect of Dickens’ life that hasn’t been looked at in much detail, so I hope people will be fascinated,’ says Dr Pittard, who aims to recreate one of Dickens’ favourite tricks for the talk.

“He wasn’t a big inventor of magic. He used to go to stores like Hamleys and buy magic sets and use those, so I think it will be fine,” he says. “I’m not a magician myself, so even if it goes wrong it will give an insight into one of Dickens’ favourite pastimes, and in this case I want to show people how it’s done. The trick itself is no longer performed, so I’m not giving away trade secrets!”

The author performed shows for friends and family in the 1840s, often adopting the persona of an Indian magician. One of his favourite tricks was making a small doll disappear and reappear, a routine that became something of a trademark.

Dr Christopher Pittard

Dr Christopher Pittard

Dr Pittard has written articles about Dickens’ magic and how it relates to his novels, particularly Bleak House. “There is the idea of magic and disappearance and reappearance and scenes in the novel seem to relate very directly to the content of his shows,” he says. “While Dickens didn’t invent the routines, we know he was a good performer.”

  • Dickensian Disappearances will take place on November 25 as part of Disappearing Acts – a series of free events organised by the university’s Centre for Studies in Literature. The talks and workshops are part of nationwide festival Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities. This year’s festival theme is Lost and Found.

The disappearance theme will run through other fascinating festival events. These include a bizarre historical tale of two missing children, retold by the university’s Dr Rosie Paice in the uncanny setting of Wymering Manor – Portsmouth’s oldest and reputedly most haunted house.

It was while searching newspaper archives that Dr Paice came across the story of a brother and sister who ran away from their Southsea home in the 1920s with nothing but a pan, a cake and the works of Shakespeare and were discovered no worse for wear two days later under a hedge near Petersfield. “It was such an odd story and obviously raised immediate questions about motivations,” says Dr Paice. “What, for instance, is the significance of the cake, pan and Shakespeare? Was Shakespeare their food for the soul?”

She adds: “I was also fascinated by how widely the story was covered in the media. It even made it into the Aberdeen Journal.”

Dr Paice continued piecing together the family history which turned from a curious incident into a tragic tale. She and fellow researcher Debbie Parker-Kinch will be talking about how we piece back together, and perhaps fictionalise, people’s lives from scraps of information.

  • The Lost of Portsmouth and Sussex takes place at Wymering Manor, Cosham on November 19. It will also feature Dr Karen Fielder, of Portsmouth School of Architecture, talking about Wymering Manor, and Debbie Parker-Kinch, of the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies, talking about forgotten Victorian poet Bessie Rayner Parkes.
  • Missing Children Found also takes place at Wymering Manor on November 19, and follows on from The Lost of Portsmouth and Southsea. This creative workshop is based on the story of the missing children.

For information on all events and to book visit https://beinghumanfestival.org/events/series/disappearing-acts.

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