In scenes beyond even the imagination of Britain's greatest novelist, the life of Charles Dickens was celebrated yesterday at simultaneous events at his birthplace, Portsmouth, and at the site of his burial in Westminster Abbey.
Two centuries after the author's birth, the Prince of Wales laid a wreath on his tombstone in Poets' Corner while, at the house where he was born, schoolchildren acted out scenes from Oliver Twist and a group of penny-farthing riders called the Pickwick Bicycle Club paid tribute to The Pickwick Papers, the story that brought him to the attention of the British public in 1836.
Audiences in 24 countries participated in a Dickens readathon which began with an excerpt from Dombey and Son in Australia and ended with a passage from The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Charles declared Dickens "one of the greatest writers in the English language" in a statement read out at a service at St Mary's Church, Portsmouth, where the author was baptised. "Despite the many years that have passed, Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest writers of the English language, who used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice," he said. "The word Dickensian instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written."
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London, one of the writer's former homes, where they listened to a reading by Gillian Anderson, who played Miss Havisham in a BBC production of Great Expectations.
Nearly 800 people attended the wreath-laying service in Westminster Abbey where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke of Dickens's unique ability to capture the human condition. He also highlighted the author's great compassion: "He loves the poor and destitute. Not from a sense of duty, but from a sense of outrage that their lives are being made flat and dead. He wants them to live. He wants them to expand into the space that should be available for human beings."