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The Charles Dickens Fair

Updated: Aug 17

The Cow Palace

San Franscisco

The Charles Dickens Fair is more than simply a fair. It is one of those immersive experiences where characters dress up in full Victorian costume (traders, military, the local wench and so on) and go about their business in imagined Victorian style. Outside, a pompous officer shouts at enlisted soldiers to get in line; inside the shoppers are interrupted as Oliver Twist is arrested for shoplifting. Through the window of Doughty Street, the Dickens family are settling down to evening dinner, apparently oblivious to the fair in the street. Of course, the actors playing Dickens’ family cut a very conservative picture next to the caricature chaos of the characters he created.

Once inside the Fair you get a real appreciation of the time and detail invested in this annual event. The Charles Dickens Fair is familiar enough to an English person. It focuses on Christmas, Dickens Christmas Carol is much celebrated, and it has a quaint feel about it. At the same time there really isn’t anything like it in the UK, in terms of scale and vision. The Cow Palace is really a giant warehouse in which scores of makeshift shops, stalls, bars and concert halls have been set up. It is to all intents and purposes a film set. And the shopkeepers, novel characters and police officers make for fine extras. These extras, I assume, love to grow (or fake) a moustache, the curly kind that seems to cover the mouth completely.

Still, the emphasis is on entertainment rather than historical accuracy. The Music Hall tells a Sherlock Holmes story and you can explore the vast collections of souvenirs to the sound of carol singers. It would not be an American event were there not a large food hall – in the end, you just need to sit down. Which I did, to witness a fencing lesson. In the street trade was held up as Santa Claus passed by. I am not sure how the actors and organisers go about returning to contemporary America at the end of the month in which the Fair is open to the public. And I couldn’t help wonder where all the sets and costumes go for the summer.

At 48 Doughty Street, Charles Dickens' family prepare for dinner

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