AUBURN — When police busted money manager Bernie Madoff in 2008, Joanne Morse went breathless.
The retired teacher from Waterford was flabbergasted by the story of the pinstriped Wall Street tycoon turned convict. The former NASDAQ head had bilked people out of billions of dollars by encouraging more and more investment. Every dollar that came in paid a dividend to an older investor and padded Madoff’s increasingly cushy lifestyle.
Finally, it all tumbled down.
Morse, 69, read the news and was stunned by its similarity to a story that was published when Abe Lincoln was still taking legal cases.
It was “Little Dorrit” by Charles John Huffam Dickens.
“There is a financial crisis in ‘Little Dorrit,’ and especially one man who everybody believes in,” Morse said. “Even the big hero of the book convinces everyone else to go with him and put their money in this guy’s accounts. He’s solid. He’s great. It was like reading the newspaper.”
She was struck by the way the change in fortunes hurt people, the characters’ lack of concern for the poor and the image Dickens painted of the Madoff-like character.
“He’s always grabbing a hold of his hands ‘as if taking himself into custody,'” Morse said, quoting Dickens. “That is marvelous.”
Morse was so struck by the storytelling, she began reading other Dickens stories such as “Great Expectations” and “Bleak House.” When she finished the novels, she began reading about the author, best known for writing “A Christmas Carol.” Morse was overwhelmed by the variety of biographies, including several new ones hoping to capitalize on this year’s milestone.
Fans will celebrate his 200th birthday on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
“It’s amazing that writers can still find more to say about him,” said Morse, a little woman who speaks in a cheery frenzy.
A Dickens club debuts in Auburn
Morse’s enthusiasm has led her to find other Dickens fans. And together, they are forming a new club — the Pickwick Club — that will debut four days after Dickens’ birthday.
It’s scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Auburn Public Library. Anyone with an interest in the author and talking about his works is encouraged to attend.
Another organizer of the group is Alexis DeRoches of Industry, whom Morse found while reading the New Yorker Magazine.
DeRoches was interviewed by writer Jill Lepore last year, while she attended an event known as Dickens Universe.
Every year, hundreds of Dickens fans from around the world gather at the University of California Santa Cruz for lectures, readings, movies and tea, all based around a work in the Dickens oeuvre. For the week, which costs $1,220 a person, attendees live at the campus. Many dress up in Dickensian costumes. Some mimic the speech of Victorian London.
For those few days, the California campus is heavy with dowdy scarves, the fussy, fingerless gloves and sentimental “God bless us, everyone”-style proclamations.
For DeRoches, who works in a Farmington realty office, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
She discovered Dickens’ work as a girl. At the age of 8 or 9, she read a Classics Illustrated Comics version of “David Copperfield.”
It was love at first read.
“I think people approach him for a lot of reasons,” DeRoches said. “The stories are fascinating. In addition to be vastly entertaining, he addresses social issues that still matter today,”
Something else happens to fans such as DeRoches.
Dickens’ voice is so strong in his work, she feels like she is being read to by a friend, she said.
“It’s hypnotic,” she said.
Dickens marital life recently revealed
That’s not to say that Dickens the man didn’t have his foibles.
A biography about Dickens’ wife Catherine Hogarth, written by Bates College professor Lillian Nayder, was published last year.
Nayder’s book describes how Dickens pressured his wife from his home after 22 years of marriage and 10 children, falsely alleging that she was mentally disordered.
“He seems like a monster sometimes, now,” Morse said. “But I think he’s partly a product of wanting to reform the society in the cities but not really knowing how to deal with (problems) in his personal life.”
He lived a head-long life, Morse said, marveling at his ability to write two books at the same time. Meanwhile, he cultivated a love of opera and took marathon-length walks through Victorian London.
“He loved it all,” Morse said. “He ate it all up. The poor. The rich.”
Dickens’ visit to Maine
Dickens had a Maine connection. It came during his second visit to America; his first was in 1842.
He visited Maine in March 1868, not long before his death by stroke two years later at the age of 58. He gave a reading in downtown Portland, slept at the Preble House on the corner of Preble and Congress streets and drew crowds everywhere he went, according to a story about the visit published in the Colby Library Quarterly in 1962.
His visit even led to a children’s short story, an autobiographical piece written by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Wiggin, who spent much of her childhood in Hollis, Maine, is best known as the author of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”
She was 11 when Dickens gave his reading and she was a big fan. Her family attended the reading and pushed through the crowd for a glimpse of the famous Englishman, she wrote in “A Child’s Journey with Dickens.” The next day, the family boarded a train for a relative’s home outside Boston.
Dickens boarded, too. And of course, the little girl met the aging author.
The girl described how she loved his books, skipped over the books’ dull parts and named family pets after his characters. He was charmed. She was, too.
“I remember feeling that I had never known anybody so well and so intimately, and that I talked with him as one talks under the cover of darkness or before the flickering light of a fire,” Wiggin wrote.
He asked her which book was her favorite. She told him “David Copperfield.”
His response: “I am glad that you like Davy, so do I,” she wrote. “I like it best, too.”
“Davy” is where the Pickwick Club plans to begin its work.
Among the attendees will be Tricia Welsch, the chair of Bowdoin College’s Film Studies Department.
“I didn’t read any Dickens until I reached graduate school,” said Welsch, who has a doctorate in English. “I thought he was wonderful.”
She said she has her own aspirations for the group.
“I really like the idea of reading a writer,” she said. “To start from the beginning and read right through.”
Sketches by Boz
The Old Curiosity Shop
A Christmas Carol
A Tale of Two Cities
Our Mutual Friend
The Pickwick Papers