From Love Of Dickens Grows A Business Of Great Expectations

January 13, 1991|By Beth Smith

By now, most people have stored away their copy of "A Christmas Carol" until next December. But Baltimore County resident Madelyn Bender is displaying two copies of the holiday classic in a glass-topped case sitting right in front of her fireplace. Her copies, a rare third edition published in 1843 and a small, purple velvet-bound version, called a coachman's copy because it was carried by travelers in the late 1800s, are prized possessions that remain easily accessible all year 'round in the Bender household.

In fact, a visitor to the living room of Madelyn and Michael Bender's home in Pinehurst is greeted with a plethora of books, prints, posters, brass figurines and other items, all connected to one man -- Charles Dickens.

"I was an English major in college and, of course, studied Dickens. He was always my favorite," says Madelyn Bender. But she credits her husband's enthusiasm for the writer with turning her into a major Dickens fan.

"Michael began reading Dickens when he was 11 or 12 years old," she adds. "His family had a 12-volume set of 20 Dickens novels that his mother bought during the 1940s." Mrs. Bender says that these books "form the heart" of the couple's collection of Dickens memorabilia.

Other prized items includes a rare video copy of the first film made from one of Dickens stories, which was a 1935 version called "Scrooge"; an 1870 photograph of Dickens taken a few days before he died; a series of tiny drawings of Dickens characters that were printed on tiny cards and then inserted into turn-of-the-century cigarette packs; silhouettes done in the late 1890s of Dickens' characters from "The Old Curiosity Shop;" a script from the 1947 movie "Great Expectations," and lots and lots of books.

One item slipped into their treasure chest almost unnoticed. For years, Mrs. Bender, an antique glass and china collector, had been searching flea markets and sales for additional pieces to match a set of dishware she had inherited from her grandmother. The dishes, used in 1950s as a promotional gimmick by the Acme grocery chain, were an inexpensive green china decorated with winter scenes.

"One day, I just looked at the china closely and discovered that the scenes were from Dickens' 'The Old Curiosity Shop,' " she says. "I just couldn't believe it."

Now Mrs. Bender has 26 place servings and uses the china for special Christmas dinners. She also has a collection of Buffalo China plates made in the 1950s that are decorated with designs from "A Christmas Carol." Her husband surprised her with this find one holiday a few years ago.

The Benders, who are avid collectors of such diverse items as jelly glasses, tin trains, old telephones, New Year's Eve noisemakers, clocks, ink bottles, scales, children's banks, Hopalong Cassidy, Mr. Peanut and Lassie memorabilia, and "probably the world's largest collection of Noxzema cobalt blue containers," adds Mr. Bender, began to really get interested in Dickens about eight years ago when they honeymooned in England.

During that stay, they visited several sites connected with Dickens, including a 19th century building called the Curiosity Shop. Mrs. Bender points out that while Dickens reported at the end of his story that the Old Curiosity Shop was torn down to make way for newer buildings, some people say the building in the heart of London is the one Dickens was referring to in his writing.

While the true story of the building remained a mystery to the Benders, they were interested in all the many Dickens items that were for sale in this shop, as well as in other museums and shops scattered throughout England. They also found themselves becoming more and more intrigued with the author. "It was not a bit intentional, but the more we looked, the more we studied, the more our interest in Dickens grew," says Mrs. Bender.

On subsequent trips to England, they began to more seriously delve into Dickens and his writings on the manners and mores of Victorian England, a period of history they both loved. In 1984, they spent one snowy day at the Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea watching an old movie version "Great Expectations" on television over and over. They also contacted English book dealers looking for old editions of Dickens novels and short stories.

For Christmas 1989, Michael Bender gave his wife an early edition of one of her favorite novels, "David Copperfield." That same holiday, Madelyn Bender searched three months for first editions of "The Old Curiosity Shop" and "Barnaby Rudge," which were published in 1840 and together constitute a collection called Master Humphrey's Clock. She wanted to surprise her husband with these books because Michael Bender, a clock collector since he was 13, has an extensive collection of antique clocks, which are displayed side by side on the living room and dining room walls of their home.

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