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Ace of earth

      Aside from London, nowhere in the world features more prominently in the life and works of Charles Dickens than Kent. Forster claimed the ancient city of Rochester to be “the birthplace of his fancy”. Situated at the confluence of the Thames and Medway waterways, the rich marshland of the London Basin and the North Downs was formed by alluvium brought downstream from the two rivers. Occupied variously by Celts, Romans, Jutes, and Saxons, the area was an important source of salt. The Diocese of Rochester is the second oldest in England, and it founded The King's School in 604 AD, the second oldest continuously running school in the world.


 When Dickens was 5, he and his family relocated from Portsmouth to the dockyards of Chatham, where they rented a house which overlooked Rochester and its basin. Dickens' next five years here were the happiest of his childhood, and Rochester, along with Chatham and the Medway wetlands, remained dear to him his entire life. Although some of John Dickens' financial troubles started here, Dickens' gregarious father cut something of a figure in Chatham, and he took an active part in local affairs. A favourite country walk took father and son through Higham, past Gad's Hill Place, where John planted a seed in young Charles' head, namely: “he might himself live in it, or in some such house when he came to be a man, if he would only work hard enough.”


 It may have been at the Sir John Falstaff Inn across the road from Gad's Hill where Dickens' father placed the small boy on a table to perform for the pub's patrons. It was certainly here in Rochester that Dickens first saw plays performed, started writing and performing plays himself, and began a lifelong love affair with the theatre. At one play he witnessed, Dickens noticed an actor's everyday street clothes jutting out from under the costume rags of one of the 3 weird sisters; the play was Macbeth and the actor may have been Thomas Lawless Ternan, Ellen's father. Ellen herself would be born in Rochester some 20 years later.


 The Dickens family left Kent for London, but Charles returned many times. He and Catherine honeymooned here, and often took summer holidays at Broadstairs. Having settled his family in Dover for the summer of 1852, Dickens intensified his exploration of Kent. Walking from Gravesend to Rochester on his birthday, he noticed Gad's Hill Place was offered for sale and bought it. Originally intended as a country retreat, Gad's Hill became his permanent residence in 1860 until his death in 1870. Dickens' death coincided with the growing rambling movement, and early ramblers liked to combine exercise with intellectual and literary pursuits. As a result, a number of the first studies of Dickens' life and work were written in the form of ramblers' guides, such as In Kent With Charles Dickens, Rambles in Dickens-Land, and Pickwickian Pilgrimage.


 Charles Dickens returned to Kent not just literally, but in his literature, many times. Chatham and Rochester feature under their own names in The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and the Christmas story The Seven Poor Travellers. Rochester is the model for Mudfog in The Mudfog Papers, Dullborough Town in the Uncommercial Traveller, Market Town in Great Expectations, Winglebury in The Great Winglebury Duel in Sketches by Boz, and Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Rochester's Royal Victoria and Bull inns are the models for the Blue Lion and the Stomach Warmer of Boz, the Bull of Pickwick, and the Blue Boar of Great Expectations.


 As with the Romantic movement of his youth, Dickens too was tempted to view the country as a paradise, out of which he had been cast as a boy and refound as a man. Rochester and its environs became for him the natural antithesis of London, often the location of security, innocence, and harmonious joy, notably in his early works. While Mr. Jingle disrupts the harmony of Dingley Dell, and Uriah Heep blights the innocence of Canterbury, both are a locus of good fellowship, just as it is Dover where David Copperfield escapes to from London to find love and acceptance. While Rochester and Gad's Hill were Dickens' respite and retreat, he actually lived a bifurcated life between country and capital, a situation made possible by Kent's quick and easy access to London by train.


 As Dickens matured and his perspective grew less reflexive, however, the country became no simple haven, no rural idyll to counter the urban iniquity. Nowhere is this dichotomy made more psychologically whole than in Great Expectations, where the Medway marshes, Gargery's forge, Mr. Pumblechook's corn and seed shop, and Satis House all effectively repudiate the bucolic myth and replace it instead with the embryonic conception of lost innocence. While the Rochester of Edwin Drood is dismal and sinister, among the last words Dickens ever wrote described the city and its cathedral in the summer sunlight:


“Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful... Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields – or, rather from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time – penetrate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach the Resurrection and the life.”


 Like the Book of John to the Synoptic Gospels, the Suit of Earth is something of a hybrid of the previous elemental suits, encompassing the I Am That I Am aspect of the past with the Logos, symbol of the redemptive qualities of a realized eschatology. As a seed is blown to the ground and buried, then warmed by the sun and watered by the rain of the Spring, so Earth is where life takes root and makes its home. Like Persephone in Hades with her pomegranate seeds, the reward after a long hard cold winter is the promise of new life fulfilled. The Earth suit represents security, firm foundation, hard-won wealth, true worth, the appreciation of beauty, sensuousness, the simple rewards of material comfort, the ability to endure adversity and hopelessness with wisdom and steadfastness, and a lack of want emotionally and materially which in turn affords an appreciation of the spiritual. When this balance is displaced, the Earth suit can indicate greed, the dependence on physical pleasure and material comfort, the pursuit of power and influence for its own sake, a lack of imagination, emotional escapism, spiritual denial, and an exigent fear of death.

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