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Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003 02:20 pm

What the Dickens! A site devoted to his public readings

Gerald Dickens performs in Springfield on Saturday, Nov. 22

Charles Dickens would have loved the Internet. To the boy who worked in the boot-blacking factory, the digital highway would have been an endless piece of paper and a bottomless pot of ink. Dickens never knew the Net, but now the Net knows him. Anyone who has written an essay for his or her English prof in the last 10 years is aware of the seemingly unlimited amount of information on any given author. Go to Google. Type in Dickens. In less time than it takes to say "Bah, humbug!" you have the scoop on everything from his mother's maiden name to the fact that he smoked cigarettes, but only moderately. One thing you couldn't find until now, however, was a comprehensive site devoted to Dickens' public readings.

Enter Brian Wallen, recently retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wallen says that he has always had an interest in Dickens. When he heard that Gerald Dickens, the great-great grandson of Charles, was coming to perform in Springfield on Nov. 22, Wallen thought it the opportune time to expand his research on the author and share his enthusiasm with others. Combining his passion for Dickens' work with his computer expertise, he has designed a truly remarkable Web site that has been officially approved by the English Department at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The site appeals to audiences ranging from academics to families looking for ways to read together. Wallen has included, among other illustrations, the 40 original plates from David Copperfield. He suggests visitors to the site may enjoy reading parts of the novel while viewing the plates not usually included in modern editions. If you don't happen to have a copy of Copperfield lying around, Wallen provides a link to the entire text, which can be downloaded, from Project Gutenberg.

In addition to other helpful links, the site provides a list of Dickens' major publications, titles of books for further reading on the author, and information on how he adapted the books for stage by creating his "prompt" books. Theater-lovers will especially enjoy the material here about Dickens on stage. He began his public readings in 1853 at Christmas time, when he gave two readings of A Christmas Carol for charitable organizations. His first real tour came in 1858, and he continued to delight audiences for a dozen years until his farewell tour in 1870 shortly before his death.

Gerald Dickens' interpretive performances of such classics as A Christmas Carol may owe something of their genius to his illustrious ancestor's talent for public speaking. In this holiday classic, he performs the amazing feat of employing the voices of all 26 characters.

The Public Readings of Charles Dickens site can be found atuisacad.uis.edu/~bwall1/Dickens/PubReadings/Cover2.htmProfits from Gerald Dickens' Springfield performances go to benefit Lincoln Library, Springfield's Public Library, Brookens Library at UIS, Lincoln Land Community College's Library, The Rochester Public Library and the SIU School of Medicine's Library. Ticket information is available on the site or by calling 217-753-4900 ext. 226.

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