The Riverside Dickens Festival serves up literacy and laughter

Dickens Festival - Evelyn Homan / The Highlander
Dickens Festival – Evelyn Homan / The Highlander

Riverside’s Dickens Festival carries on in the traditions of Riverside culture and celebrating history. Founded in the 1990s, the festival exists with the intention of being a history lesson mixed with a love of literature and some extravagant fun. The street festival is held toward the end of February every year, and this year’s was held on February 26 and 27. Having attended a few years earlier, I was excited to get the chance to go again as the street festival got back into swing following its hiatus due to the pandemic.

The festival was smaller than past years due to this being a rebound from the two years off. However, it didn’t stop people of all ages from dressing up in Victorian attire and walking around downtown Riverside. Many vendors from across California were set up selling all sorts of handmade goods all in the theme of the festival, from coffin-shaped earrings to steampunk hats to Victorian-style skirts. 

Food options at the fair were also very much on-theme; though the attendance at local restaurants downtown were in full swing because of the tourism this festival attracts, there were also options for more proper English food. Scotch eggs, meat pies, Welsh tea cakes and fish and chips were all served at several food stands across the festival. There was also a tent set up as a “tavern” for the 21 and up crowd to enjoy. Several bands retired from their performances on the two large stages at either end of the street to perform more for the adults.

The performances that took place were just as much on theme. Local bands that keep traditions of Scottish, Gaelic and English folk music alive could be heard multiple times throughout the two days the festival took place. A brass band played popular tunes from the turn of the 20th century. There were also shows that hark back to the popularity of Victorian-era circuses that enraptured both the young and old, from a clown to a sword swallower to a Punch and Judy puppet show. For those more excited about the literary aspect of the fair, there were also actors dressed up as renowned figures, such  as Kate Dickens Perugini, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Dickinson. They could be found walking the fair, and during a panel in which the audience could ask anything of these actors, they responded how they best thought their authors would. 

Though smaller than pre-pandemic years, the return of the Dickens Festival was one I welcomed. It’s an incredible way to support local businesses that may not often get such a platform to share their niche creations and learn a little more about Victorian culture. It ties back to Riverside’s closeness with Victorian history (mainly since one of its residents in the 1800s — and the inventor of the navel orange — Eliza Tibbets, had an obsession with looking like Queen Victoria), and it honors these big names that still influence the canon of English literature to this day. The street festival is always free to attend, and if you get the chance to in the coming years, I highly recommend going.

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