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By Alison Boyle on

A Star-crossed Birthday For Dickens

Today, people around the world are celebrating Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday. Hopefully they’ll enjoy themselves more than Dickens himself did on a youthful birthday outing:

‘Slow torture’ … ‘it was awful’ … ‘very alarming’ … ‘I thought if this were a birthday it were better never to have been born’.

Is Dickens recalling that terrible birthday? (National Media Museum)

Dickens looked back on this beleaguered birthday in an All the Year Round article of 1863. The subject of his ire was an astronomical lecture, a popular entertainment of the time. The young Dickens was unimpressed with the ageing and shabby demonstration instrument, ‘at least one thousand stars and twenty five comets behind the age’, with poor likenesses of the celestial bodies and malfunctioning light effects. The lecturer also droned on, tapping away at the model ‘like a wearisome woodpecker’.

Dickens might have had better luck with Mr Bartley’s lectures. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but turned his talents to astronomy when the comedy shows stopped for Lent.

Would Mr Bartley have entertained Dickens? (Science Museum)

19th century astronomical shows were often spectacular theatrical events – perhaps why Dickens was so disappointed with the shabby and outdated performance he encountered. Lecturers travelled the country, advertising their wares with increasingly outlandish names for their demonstration instruments.  Audiences might encounter the Eidouranion in Rochester, or be dazzled by the Dioastrodoxon in Wakefield.

You can find out more about scientific showbiz in Richard Altick’s The Shows of London, or Iwan Rhys Morus’s When Physics Became King. Or why not sample the Science Museum’s present-day versions? I wonder what Dickens would have made of them…