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    The Greatest Holiday Time Travel Ever

    By Jan Wahl–

    Every year at this time I start counting days to my favorite holiday event. I get to meet Oscar Wilde, Anne Lister (aka Gentleman Jack), Sherlock Holmes, and Charles Dickens. Taking a leisurely stroll through upper class London, with all the dancing and fabulous lace, bookstore, hats, and feathers, I end up at seedy Mad Sal’s, singing dirty ditties with the lowest of the low. It’s a good location to chat up the Oliver Twist folks, from Fagin to Bill Sikes. The songs wafting from Sal’s are actual songs of the time, reminding us that Victorian England was colorful, wild, and outrageous.

    The tall, dashing man whose parents began it all is Kevin Patterson. He shared with me for the San Francisco Bay Times some early memories of The Great Dickens Fair & Victorian Holiday Party: “I started at ten as one of Fagin’s boys picking pockets, working the audiences and, of course, giving back the purloined items. I morphed into backstage, but always, like everyone, in period costume with period language.”

    “Every year Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future interact with the crowd, the kids riding and creating art, eating fish and chips from the Napala Family (HMS Fish & Chips),” he added. “Jeff Schoenberg is a third generation seamster who beautifully fits clothes for gentlemen at Alan Jeffries, the booth next to the Dickens Family Home. My General Manager son Drew and I catch as many of the shows as we can with my coproducer Leslie Patterson, but it is really the joining of the fictional and non-fictional coming to life that is so exciting and unique to this extravaganza.”

    One of my favorite hangouts at the fair is the Athenaeum Club, where everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Karl Marx to brave suffragettes lecture and converse. That is where Edith Castorena becomes Anne Lister. Lister was a very wealthy Victorian woman who often dressed as a man and lived an open life as a lesbian. Highly educated, she was known as Gentleman Jack. That is the name of a remarkable television series from BBC/HBO starring Suranne Jones.

    Castorena told me why she admires Lister: “I am a gay person, part of the queer community. The bravery it took for Lister to live in her time when it was so unsafe to be out amazes me to this day. She survived terrible hatred, yet had the ability to love and be loved. It’s all in her unearthed diaries. She had multiple lovers, from women of accomplishment to her wife who had none. Lister was a Tory; her money and land funded her ability to travel the world and become a town planner in her community. Watching Gentleman Jack again is helping my progress and inspiration, as well as reading her diaries. There is a rainbow plaque at Holy Trinity Church in York today to honor her, declaring her marital commitment to Ann Walker, 1834.” 

    I’m hoping our own Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro will honor Lister too.

    Now we meet the gutsy, tragic, brilliant genius Oscar Wilde. I have his quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” over my bed. Portrayed by Sean Owens at the fair, Wilde is greatly loved by so many of us.  Owens told me, “Oscar was civil and savage at the same time. He was something like Truman Capote, quotable and controversial. I’ve been compared to Wilde for a long time, which is an honor. Oscar was part of a thriving LBGTQ community in London at this time, attending his very successful plays, reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, loving his out loud lifestyle. There were stage weddings with gay people at private pubs, cross dressing. Wilde knew that stuffy Victorians needed fresh air and reality. He fell madly in love with a young man, believing firmly that beauty mirrored the soul. This was Oscar’s tragedy, but there is so much to celebrate and admire.”

    One way to appreciate Wilde before you meet him at the fair is to see the amazing 1997 movie starring Stephen Fry, Jude Law, and Vanessa Redgrave. It is a profound and moving film simply called Wilde. While we’re at the movies, there are terrific ones out there to get you in the mood for this immersive Dickens Fair experience, or at least to keep you in the holiday spirit. Oliver! (Best Picture Oscar winner 2005) and the classic 1951 A Christmas Carol should do the trick.  I love Scrooged from 1988; a holiday comedy with Bill Murray perfection as a bitter television executive. Or just head over to the 39th Great Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace, weekends November 18 to December 17. Tickets are $18–$45. For more info:

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian and film critic on various broadcast outlets. She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Off the Wahl
    Published on November 16, 2023