The Charles Dickens Tarot by Chris Leech
Reviewed by Julie T
ISBN: 978-0-7643-5775-6 Published by: Red Feather Mind/Body/Spirit (Schiffer Publishing Ltd) RRP: £39.99
I have been a “Dickensophile” ever since “Great Expectations” was on my primary school reading list when I was 11 years old (which was a very long time ago!). So you can imagine my delight at winning the draw to review this new deck for TABI!
The Charles Dickens Tarot is beautifully presented in a sturdy box with a magnetic catch. The lid is illustrated with an easily recognisable portrait of the novelist.
The card stock is firm and quite thick; it’s a deep deck at 34mm. The cards are gilt-edged, giving the deck a lustrous golden profile. I understand, however, that when TABI received the deck, it proved difficult to separate the cards without damaging them.
The most dramatic aspect of the deck is its unusual landscape orientation, which the accompanying book tells us aims at suggesting a theatrical stage or an open book. It certainly opens up possibilities for wider vistas and larger groups of characters.
The companion paperback book has a pleasant matt-finish cover, and the glossy pages carry full-colour illustrations of each card. There are some useful extras in the book too, including a chronological timeline of Dickens’s life, plus a short, but hilarious chapter of suggested spreads that gently mock some classic “Dickens-isms”! As you might expect, there is also the obligatory sample reading, but, in this case, the question is intriguingly posed by Charles Dickens himself at a specific juncture in his life.
The deck’s system is that of the RWS. However, the RWS’s protagonists tend to appear as snapshots in time, and we often have to surmise their histories or destinies. In the Charles Dickens deck, we invariably know the fate of the characters already, which can offer a provocative twist on cards that represent potential outcomes in a spread.
The four suits’ names are distilled down to their Elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. The Aces each sport a banner declaring their suits. The customary emblems for Wands, Swords don’t appear in this deck, so the remaining pip cards’ suits must be identified by their elaborate borders (red for Fire, grey for Air etc).
The traditional medieval court card hierarchy is replaced by Father, Mother, Son and Daughter, which do seem to sit more comfortably in Dickens’s Victorian world.
The major arcana also have a shared border, and they largely focus on Dickens’s personal history and the characters that populate it.
Most of the minor arcana cards depict an individual or a gathering of characters from one of Dickens’s novels. Others depict locations (both real and fictitious) that have personalities of their own, such as Yarmouth, Boffin’s Bower and the Circumlocution Office. The novel to which people or places belong isn’t mentioned on the card itself; you have to refer to Mr Leech’s book if you’re not sure where they come from.
Each minor arcana card is given its own page in the companion book (the majors are discussed at more length). Under each card heading is the name of the host novel and a list entitled “Shorthand”, comprising keywords and phrases for the card. There is, however, no indication of why a character or location has been selected for each card, but I can vouch for experiencing numerous lightbulb moments as connections were made!
For example, Uriah Heep is perfect for the Seven of Air, as is John Jarndyce for the Six of Earth, Miss Haversham for the Mother of Fire, and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim for the Five of Earth.
And some character choices are nothing short of inspired! For example, we might not immediately cast Amy Dorrit in the role of a Mother card; she is only a young girl – little sister to Fanny and Tip in “Little Dorrit” (Amy is, of course, the eponymous heroine). However, she forfeits her own freedom to care for her father in the notorious Marshalsea Prison, and she takes on maternal responsibility for the whole family. She provides for Fanny and Tip from her meagre earnings, and uncomplainingly meets their daily needs – everything from catering to mending and laundry. Thus the young, diminutive Amy Dorrit is the veritable personification of the Mother of Earth.
I wonder, though, if readers who aren’t quite so familiar with Dickens’s work could find these character-card connections something of a challenge. Although the name “Oliver Twist” is likely to inhabit our collective unconscious due to the numerous TV adaptations and films of the book, individuals like Kit Nubbles, Dick Swiveller or Stephen Blackpool might be complete strangers to some of us.
As you might expect, the major arcana cards’ imagery is rather more complex. Some rely on the direct character associations we saw in the minors – what better casting than the adventurous and gullible Mr Pickwick as The Fool?! Even the role of the dog that traditionally accompanies the Fool is cleverly allotted to Pickwick’s faithful and playful man-servant, Sam Weller.
In The Chariot, Dickens himself takes centre stage as he performs the theatrical monologues for which he was so famous. As the charioteer, he drives his audience on; we see their rapt faces in this card as they are carried away by his remarkable charisma and force of will.
Justice is rather more intriguing as it plunges us into the Court of Chancery that dominates “Bleak House” (perhaps it’s rare for Justice to be infused with such cautionary undertones?). The legal case in question, namely Jarndyce and Jarndyce, is the pernicious thread that runs through this novel, and we know that Miss Flite (who also appears on this card) will symbolise the lawsuit’s demise when she finally releases her caged birds. Mr Leech’s book suggests that this Justice card picks up on the disparity in the novel between the law of the land and individuals’ capabilities to recognise good and evil, and behave accordingly.
Other major cards offer us a fascinating insight into traditional meanings. Sydney Carton as The Hanged Man perfectly conjures up the card’s notions of upending an old order and relinquishing a claim. And the subtitle “Poverty” is the consummate Devil for Charles Dickens; his social conscience is well documented, and most of us will be familiar with the two ghastly children who lurk under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s cloak: Ignorance and Want. Which leads us to Ebenezer Scrooge as the Judgement card – the ideal focus for a theme of spiritual rebirth or a wake-up call. Even Tiny Tim’s declaration of “God bless us, every one!” would be entirely in character here.
In his epilogue, the deck’s author makes some fascinating observations about Charles Dickens being an unlikely source for the Tarot; Dickens is hardly known for an esoteric or spiritual oeuvre. Furthermore, formal religiosity and grandiose moral standards are often a source of derision or humour in his novels, as seen in Messrs Chadband and Pecksniff. Mr Leech’s point is that that the novels build “moral touchstones” of their own, offering a kind of karmic spiritual guidance; without trying to deify Dickens, this is a compelling argument.
If I had to find something to criticise in this deck, it might be that the cards are a little small to hold such a lot of intricate detail. I’m not overly keen on the ornate borders that restrict the area devoted to the imagery, although I suppose they might be considered to be appropriate Victoriana. The cards are, in fact, marginally larger than a standard RWS deck at 128 x 84mm, but DruidCraft proportions might have rendered a magnifying glass less essential for an ageing reader like me! I know, however, that extra-large decks aren’t always popular or easy to shuffle, so perhaps these cards are indeed the perfect size for many readers.
In conclusion, this deck has stolen my heart! If Charles Dickens and his huge cast of characters flow through your veins as they do through mine, I think you’ll connect with this deck immediately. It might be a slightly longer journey if you don’t know the novels (which I suspect would apply equally to The Sherlock Holmes Tarot). But if this deck introduces uninitiated Tarot card readers to the works of Charles Dickens, it can only be a bonus!