DALY CITY – Dickensian pretensions hang thick and heavy in the cloistered air here.
Thick as the wafting onion-fog of bangers and mash, and spiced aroma of mulled wine proffered by overly perfumed, corseted maidens with heaving bosoms. Heavy as the harsh, mouth- breathing-necessitating odor of corpulent men sweating through layers of tweed and serge.
Olfactory overload is just one of the sensations awaiting at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a Bay Area holiday staple since 1970. These Victorian re-enactors cherish – nay, demand – period authenticity from shopkeepers and purveyors of gout-inducing viands, its proprietors of pubs and doyennes of dance halls.
The illusion of Charles Dickens' London, in all its splendor if not its squalor, must be maintained. And it's all here at the appropriately named Cow Palace: The cane-twirling upper- class lords sneering at soot-besotted chimney sweeps; the unnaturally small-waisted women in swishing skirts and feathered headdresses turning retrousse noses up at slatternly dockside tarts incapable of keeping their cleavage contained; the enterprising scamps in jaunty caps simulating at working hard for a shilling, while the grimy pickpockets toil equally as hard to steal same.
As a kindly, bewhiskered upper-class gent named Emu Tweedle, risking ostracism for breaking character to provide a confidential aside, kindly explains: "These people are so dedicated they make sure the thread-count of their underwear is right for the period."
But even down-to-the-knickers verisimilitude has its limits and, thankfully, the Dickens Fair isn't rigidly OCD in its re-creation.
Smoke does not actually belch from stage-set chimneys. Raw sewage does not flow on the faux streets into the imaginary Thames. Slaughtered oxen do not lie festering in the gutters. Cholera does not run rampant. Rats do not skitter underfoot.
Nothing so Oliver Twist.
Good to know the fair's street sweepers merely have to contend with the stray BPA-free water bottle or discarded meat-pie tins.
This is Victorian England, sanitized for your protection.
And that's precisely what the teeming masses during the fair's five-weekend holiday run (through Dec. 23) expect. Even hardcore Anglophiles, the ones who dress in Victorian rags even if they're not getting paid to do so by the organizers, do not begrudge the hygienic, if historically inaccurate, sprucing of the 120,000-square-foot stage-cum-midway-cum-shopping mall.
"Sometimes, their accents falter, but it's not about that," fairgoer Beth Thompson of Santa Rosa says of the scene. "It's not about authenticity. It's about picking the parts of the past we romanticize and want to bring into the future, into our daily lives."
Thompson is typical of the avid literature buffs drawn to this amusement. Her bucket-list goal is to read the complete works of Dickens, though not in chronological order. In her 20s, she's halfway there and has already polished off "Bleak House," a major hurdle. But it's not just Dickens devotees; it's readers enamored by the Brontes, Thackeray and Trollope, too. And it's also for people whose only reference point for the era is a yearly dose of Scrooge and Marley's Ghost.
"I like that it gives a feel of (the time)," says Susan Lamb, another fairgoer from Santa Rosa, "but not show the cramped and crowded and awful conditions."
The exhibit hall is echo-chamber expansive, divided into 16 "neighborhoods," each with stages, restaurants, pubs, retail boutiques and amusements for the kiddies. It is mapped like London of the time, with posh neighborhoods like Nickelby Road mere steps away from crime-ridden Fagin's Alley, the sketchy London docks hard by elegant Pickwick Place.
Organizer Red Barn Productions – the same Marin County folks responsible for the original Renaissance Faire at Black Point Forest – says that more than 50,000 people annually shell out $25 ($80 for a season pass) to be transported to an earlier epoch. They want, as the promotional material promises, a "Kaleidoscope of Victorian Frivolity" and "Artful Yuletide Extravaganza" replete with a "sumptuous display of boisterous and amazing entertainments."
Given that 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, the fair has upped its game to include even more exhibits, more theatrical spectacles, more corporeal embodiments of fictional characters, and literary and historical figures come to life.
More. Just more.
There are said to be in excess – they swarm like locusts – of 700 characters roaming the premises with impunity, selling everything from corsets to incense and dusting off their drama-club acting chops for captive audiences.
You never know who will accost you. Could be the crafty crook Fagin from "Oliver Twist," suitably scrofulous in Victorian rags and flashing a smile exposing the era's poor dental hygiene. Or it could be the villainous Wackford Squeers from "Nicholas Nickleby" or, worse yet, his shrewish wife. You can be propositioned by those dockside tarts one minute, preached to by a temperance-movement marm named Mrs. Linnet the next.
One constant: These people stay in character. With the dedication of community-theater regulars, they engage in random acts of improvisation and try mightily to maintain their accents. Valiant attempts to coerce Mrs. Linnet to break character and reveal her true identity fail miserably. She takes it as a personal affront that she is even asked. The woman really needs to loosen up, maybe swing by Mad Sal's Dockside Alehouse for a pint or three.
But any anthropologist worthy of donning a pith helmet – or, in this case, a stovepipe hat – knows you need to befriend a local to seek entry into the tribe's inner workings, its sanctum sanctorum of communitarianism.
You settled on the aforementioned Emu Tweedle, whom you first encountered gesticulating fervently and trilling his R's in front of a Greek food kiosk on "Fish Street."
As Mr. Tweedle tucked into his spanakopitas, you asked whether Greek joints even existed in Victorian England. He bristled and launched into a colloquy about England's cultural debt to ancient Greece.
You began to suspect that Mr. Tweedle is an academic is real life, or at the very least an autodidact. He eventually coughed up that his name is Keith Oshins of San Francisco, and that he's a 20-year veteran of Dickens and Renaissance fairs.
"Buy me two beers when I get off," he said, "and I'll read to you my unwritten thesis on how these fairs have affected American popular culture whether you know it or not."
You opted for the shorter, CliffNotes version, and Oshins was accommodating. That's the thing about the people you meet at the Dickens Fair: They are exceedingly friendly and game for nearly anything.
"In any culture going on a long time, there are rituals and even an internal language that would mean nothing to someone on the outside," he said. "You'll see a lot of the same people here as at the Renaissance Faire. We now have fourth or fifth generations.
"A good analogy is carny culture. Renaissance and Dickens Fair exists at the corner of hippie and carny, with some history thrown in. Because what we're doing here is living history. But we're also our own community.
"Think of all the geek subcultures out there: science fiction, Deadheads, whatever. OK, now, remember Ven diagrams, the ones with the circles? This place, right here, is where almost all of those circles intersect."
Mr. Tweedle, late getting back to the Turkish coffee cafe where he toiled, fobbed you off to two of his comrades: Mr. Beadle, proudly wearing a docked hat and carrying a 7-foot staff, and an unnamed, blue- uniformed constable with the thickest Cockney accent in the fair (and that's saying a lot, folks).
You wanted to get as far away from the constable as possible after he determined you were a reporter by your telltale spiral notebook.
"One of them Fleet Street blokes, eh?"
You handed him a business card, reluctantly.
"The Bee? I dint know insects had they own newspaper. Aye, I wanna read that rag "
Staff in hand, Mr. Beadle (loosely based on the "Twist" character Bumble the Beadle, who ran the workhouse) rescued you from the aggressively- in-character constable. It turned out that, Mr. Beadle, too, was willing to break character for a few minutes.
Maybe Mr. Beadle – in real life Carl West of Concord – had been nipping at the mead, or maybe he was just an emotional gent, but his eyes got a little watery talking about the Dickens Fair.
"I have people here who are closer than family," he said. "We will do pretty much anything for anyone here."
He did, however, respectfully disagree with Mr. Tweedle's carny analogy.
"No, see, carny culture is more a matter of trying to get as much from your customer as possible," he said. "This is more about being surrounded in an environment that brings to life a culture that you don't know."
You trotted out your fast-fading theory that the Dickens Fair is merely a sanitized version of Victorian England. Disneyland, circa 1850.
That proved a mistake, especially since Mr. Beadle brandished that impressive staff and seemed like a man not afraid to use it.
"Of course, there were abuses," he said. "But there also were people who showed kindness and gentleness toward the factory workers. Look, you have to romanticize some things. Come on, you can't present people dying on the streets."
Suppose not. But that's not to say there isn't an edge to the Dickens Fair. It's not all "hot chestnuts and cold beer," as one fairgoer merrily proclaimed.
Wandering by the "Adventurer's Club," you spy a sepulchral man from across the pond, dressed all in black and sporting black eye shadow and a sinister, pencil-thin mustache, reciting a poem. He pounds his fist on the lectern, swivels his head with almost psychotic glee.
It's Edgar Allen Poe reading "The Raven," and nearing the conclusion of every stanza, both Poe and his audience shout the refrain, "Quoth the Raven, nevermore!"
Afterward, the notoriously media-shy Poe consents to an interview.
"When I approached management about playing Mr. Poe years and years ago, they responded, and I quote, 'Don't you think that's a bit depressing for a Christmas fair?' " he says. "But, rather than playing him as morose and suicidal, as is the popular parlance, I said, 'Hey, Mr. Poe can enjoy himself at a Christmas party as much as any man. He just happens to enjoy scaring the hell out of people.' "
Mr. Poe's nonliterary name: "Lee Presson. That's the name of my swing band, Lee Presson and the Nails."
So, at the Dickens Fair, even the performer's alter egos have alter egos, like so many Russian nesting dolls. The mind reels.
Many performers revel in playing dress-up and adopting personas diametrically opposite of that of their prosaic lives. Take the dockside tarts, a giggling gaggle of flesh-flashing sexpots literally sprawled on the floor next to the craps tables and dart boards in the "Pirates Plunder" area.
" 'ello, my luv," a forward woman named Faith Ramsbottom offers with a come-hither look.
"We are ladies who provide vertical recreational services. Vertical because we don't have a lot of time. I'm sure you don't, either."
Another woman, Prue Moorhead, plays hard to get.
"We actually are ladies of negotiable virtue."
"Commonly called tarts," Hortense Willingly says, cutting to the chase. "Have you read your 'Oliver Twist'? Nancy is the (prostitute) Dickens writes about, but he's kind of coy about how she makes a living, don'tcha know?"
Hortense, in non-Dickens world, identifies herself as Janice Gutshall of Sacramento. Before you have a chance to ask about whether people at Gutshall's place of employment know how she spends her weekends, another "customer" approached the ladies. It's a chap introducing himself as H.G. Wells.
You want to mention to this dapper man in a worsted suit that Wells was born slightly too late for Victorian times. Instead, you shrug and wander over to the craps table, where a fast-talking, dice-wielding bloke named Willem Tweendecks IV is separating people from their silver.
You ask Tweendecks why it seems everyone at the Dickens Fair is so-and-so the III or IV, and he doesn't miss a beat: "That's because, for me, when I work at Renaissance fairs, which is two centuries before this, my character is Captain Tweendecks. So now, I'm my own great-great-great-great grandson."
Well, of course he is.
THE GREAT DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR
What: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 23
Where: The Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Avenue, Daly City
Cost: $25 general; $21 students, seniors and military; $12 children ages 5-12; free for children under 5. A season pass is $80.
Parking: $10 in Cow Palace lots
More information: (800) 510-1558, ext. 114, or www.dickensfair.com.