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Charles Dickens: Literary Superstar Returns

Exhibit and Events Celebrate Author’s Connection to Lowell

Image by Meghan Moore
Florian Schweizer, left, and David Blackburn installed the long-awaited portrait of Charles Dickens's young children for the "Dickens in Massachusetts" exhibit running through October.

By Julia Gavin

After four years of international partnership and local hard work, UMass Lowell and the Lowell National Historical Park welcome Charles Dickens back to Massachusetts. An exhibit and dozens of events will stretch through October in celebration of Dickens’s 200th birthday and the 170th anniversary of his transformative trip to Lowell as a young literary superstar.

The LNHP’s exhibit, “Dickens in Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation,” features artifacts that have been gathered from across the globe. The display, which spans the author’s life and interests including social justice, literature and laws to protect artists, will run through Oct. 20. 

“In my 25 years with the park service, this is certainly one of the largest and most exciting projects I’ve been a part of,” says David Blackburn, chief of cultural resources and programs for LNHP. 

The artifact the organizers are most excited about is a portrait of Dickens’s young children, which accompanied Charles and his wife, Catherine, on their first trip to America in 1842. Check out photos of the artifacts.

“The painting was the first item Charles and Catherine unpacked wherever they went, so that visitors and friends could ‘meet’ the Dickens children,” says Prof. Diana Archibald, a main organizer of the program. “It has been in the Dickens family for years and we know it hasn’t been displayed in America in at least a generation. It’s possible that this is the first time the painting has been back to America since their trip.”

The painting, which shows the oldest four of the 10 children Dickens had, includes a handwritten note on the back by his daughter Kate detailing the artifact’s origin and travels. “It’s a very intimate artifact, and we’re fortunate to have it as part of the exhibit,” says Archibald.

Florian Schweizer, director of London's Charles Dickens Museum and of the Dickens 2012 worldwide bicentenary celebration, was instrumental in bringing the painting and many other Dickens artifacts to Lowell. Schweizer has been working with Archibald and Blackburn since the project’s inception to make Lowell’s celebration a show-stopper. He was recently in town to unpack some of the artifacts and met with Archibald’s Dickens-focused class to share his knowledge. Schweizer also gave an in-depth talk about international copyright law, one of Dickens’ lifelong pursuits, during the exhibit’s opening weekend.

Highlights of Upcoming “Dickens in Lowell” Events

  • “Whose Art is it Anyway?” Thursday, April 5, 7 to 10 p.m. in O’Leary Library Room 222
    • Dickens grappled with the thorny nexus of art and commerce. Many of the same issues regarding intellectual property rights continue today. Three UMass Lowell faculty members — author Andre Dubus, photographer Arno Minkkinen and musician Alan Williams — discuss creative works, commerce and distribution, and the role of influence and access in the 21st century. Sponsored by the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture Series, UMass Lowell Honors Program and English Department, this event is free and open to the public.
  • "Catherine Dickens in 2012" Thursday, April 12, 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Allen House and 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Lowell National Historical Park
    • Catherine Dickens played a crucial role in her famous husband’s tour of North America in 1842, though by the time he made his second tour in 1867, he had separated from her and written her out of his life. Lillian Nayder acknowledges and challenges the power of Charles Dickens's voice, outlining the difficulties she faced as Catherine's biographer. Sponsored by the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture Series, UMass Lowell Gender Studies Program, English Department and Lowell Women's Week, this event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow. Space limited for Allen House lecture, reservations suggested: 978-934-4182 or
  • International Dickens Society Symposium July 13 to 15
    • Dickens scholars from around the world will present papers on all aspects of the life and works of Charles Dickens.  Regular registration $100; graduate students $50.
  • “Dickens' Women” Friday, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m. in Durgin Hall
  • Bringing to life 23 of Charles Dickens's most affecting and colorful female (and male) characters, Miriam Margolyes, presents her powerful, comprehensive and hilarious exposé of Dickens, his writing and the real-life women who found themselves immortalized in his books. 
A full calendar of events is available at the Dickens in Lowell website.