Reliving the Victorian Era Abroad: Attending the Deventer Dickens Festival in the Netherlands

Daný van Dam is a third-year PhD student at Cardiff University. She researches the function of racial and sexual stereotypes in neo-Victorian fiction. On 4 March 2015, Daný organises a one-day symposium on neo-historical fiction in Amsterdam (see https://www.facebook.com/readingpresentpast/ for more info). More information on her work can be found at https://cardiff.academia.edu/DanyvanDam.

Reliving the Victorian Era Abroad: Attending the Deventer Dickens Festival in the Netherlands

After wanting to go for years and years, this December I finally managed to attend the annual Dickens Festival in Deventer, at city in the eastern part of the Netherlands, not too far from the German border. Previous attempts to go were foiled by the fact that I was living in another country (the “hardships” of being an international PhD student…) and once, when I had everything all planned out, we got about two feet of snow overnight, so there were no trains running. This year, however, everything finally came together, and, with a friend who teaches English in secondary school I got up early to travel to Deventer. Going early is recommended by the organisation of the Dickens Festival: the smallish city (it has just under 100,000 inhabitants, making it about the size of Lincoln or Worcester) almost doubles its population for a weekend – this year’s Festival attracted around 135,000 people over the two days it was on.[1]

A re-enactor portraying Queen Victoria. (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

                                A re-enactor portraying Queen Victoria.
                                         (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

 

Deventer is known for its historic city centre, with some buildings going back to the sixteenth century and some of its churches even to the thirteenth century. For the annual Festival, part of the centre is closed off and turned into a kind of Dutch-Victorian quarter, where hundreds of actors participate in creating the illusion that the visitors walk around in a Victorian city. Some characters are easily recognisable from Dickens’ better-known books: Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham sits in a window surrounded by the ruins of her planned wedding day while Estella shops for pretty dresses, Ebenezer Scrooge wanders around looking annoyed and saying ‘humbug!’ as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scowls at people from under his dark hood. Others are more generally related to the Victorian period or Dickens’ own life: her majesty the Queen is helped from her carry-chair by some guards in dress uniform while further down the street newspaper boys (and girls) shout to advertise the event’s small paper, on sale for twenty cents. Dressed-up parents walk the street with small children in old push chairs; a made-up dandy winks at passing women while a poor family drags their few belongings in a wooden cart and beggar children hold out their hands. Still others walk around in costumes that are only loosely period dress but that nevertheless contribute to the general un-twenty-first century atmosphere.

A re-enactor portraying Dickens's Miss Havisham. (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

                     A re-enactor portraying Dickens’s Miss Havisham.
                                      (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

Especially considering the fact that my PhD research area is neo-Victorianism, I find the recreation of this ultimate Victorian stereotype, Dickens’ London, extremely intriguing. How did this Dutch city decide that they wanted to turn their town centre into a Victorian city once a year (for the 25th year in a row)? Although the event website has plenty of practical information and summarises several of Dickens’ novels and stories for those who have not read them (in Dutch: http://www.dickensfestijn.nl/dickensfiguren – if you click on the English flag at the top you can get an English-language opening page) there is little information on the history of the Festival. While Dickens will be a familiar name to almost everyone in the Netherlands, few people have actually read much, if any of his work. It is not a standard item on school reading lists (the friend who joined me taught Great Expectations but found that her teenage students have difficulty picking up on the jokes and double meanings that are part of Dickens’ language use in his writing) and likely more people will have seen The Muppets’ Christmas Carol (1992) – which, admittedly, is brilliant – than have read Dickens’ original story.

Re-enactors portraying Dickens's Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future.  (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

      Re-enactors portraying Dickens’s Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future.
                                          (Photograph: Daný van Dam)

When describing the popularity of neo-Victorian recreations of the nineteenth century (in film, literature, art or other forms), it is often argued that the Victorians and their culture are so popular today because they are close enough to our own experience to be familiar but also distant enough to be strange to us. One reason for the Netherlands to look across the North Sea for their Dickens Festival may be that there is no similar historical period to look back upon: novels, films, and the like, either turn to the more recent past, especially the Second World War, or they turn to historical periods much further away, like the seventeenth-century Golden Age. In the case of World War II this is visible in the popularity of recent performances like the musical ‘Soldier of Orange’ (Soldaat van Oranje)[2] and Anne (a show theatre performance based on the life of Anne Frank).[3] Popularising the Golden Age leads to questions of exploitation of other peoples (especially through the medium of the Dutch East and West India Companies), as happened with the recent film The Admiral (screened in the Netherlands under the title Michiel de Ruyter) and De Ruyter’s links to the slave trade.[4] Neither period seems to create the mix of familiar nearness and amazement that the Victorian era does.

For a future project, I am researching this phenomenon of countries looking outside their own national borders to create neo-historical fictions (either written or otherwise). If you know of any neo-Victorian sources in languages other than English and/or from countries other than the United Kingdom and its former colonies, I would be very pleased to hear from you at vandamhd@cardiff.ac.uk.

_________________

[1] This is a piece in the Deventer local newspaper. Although it is in Dutch, the pictures accompanying it give a good impression. http://www.destentor.nl/regio/deventer/in-beeld-dickens-festijn-trekt-135-000-bezoekers-1.5561183 [Accessed 31 December 2015].

[2] The musical is based on a book (1970) and film (1977) of the same title. The original story was written by a resistance fighter on the basis of his notes at the time; it provides a somewhat romanticised view of his life and that of his Leiden student friends. For the musical, they purpose-built a theatre so as to be able to use some special effects in the performance. See http://www.soldaatvanoranje.nl/ [Accessed 31 December 2015].

[3] See http://www.theateramsterdam.nl/en/anne/the-performance/ [Accessed 31 December 2015].

[4] See http://www.admiralthemovie.com/ [Accessed 31 December 2015].

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3 responses to “Reliving the Victorian Era Abroad: Attending the Deventer Dickens Festival in the Netherlands

  1. Researching this as well. Found an article that a lady named Emmy Strik came up with the concept around 1991 with some 70 actors at the beginning. She is a fan of Dickens. 😉

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