It is the best of times and the worst of times. For fans of Charles Dickens, that is. Two rival Dickens societies hold animated monthly meetings to discuss Miss Havisham, Mr. Micawber, and the death of Little Nell in basement rooms near Second Avenue. Their schedules clash annually during dueling lunches in February celebrating the British author's birthday.
Both groups are open to all, and members include a mixture of law professors, librarians, housewives, priests, and students, among others. Neither demands specialized knowledge or background of Dickens. Then why the divide? A schism occurred about a decade ago due to fallout over whether to pay a West-coast rental house for alleged damage to an Oliver Twist video.
Dickens himself was hardly immune from disputes. When disagreement led to cessation of a publication called "Household Words," the prolific author started anew and began to publish "All the Year Round."
Bernard Shaw, Robert Browning, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats have only one author appreciation society each in Gotham. But travel agent Rose Roberts, who leads the older of the two groups, the Dickens Fellowship of New York, is partial to Dickens.
"Unless you've read Dickens, you don't know how good he is," Ms. Roberts said.
So how does a Dickens devotee decide which to join? Herbert "Jimmy" Schwarz Jr. belongs to both. In Solomonic fashion, he said that in a given year, he might attend the Friends of Dickens lunch on the author's birthday and the Dickens Fellowship lunch on the author's death.
The Dickens Fellowship of New York generally meets each second Saturday in the Yorkville Library to discuss chapters of a selected novel. Beforehand, a retired assistant principal of a Manhattan middle school, Morton Jacober, jogs participant's memories by reading a verse summary of its contents. This Dickensian "poet laureate," as he is called, opened a discussion of the "Pickwick Papers, the current book under consideration, as follows: Sam Pickwick created an association, Joined by hale fellows in the organization. They concerned themselves with weighty this and thats, Such as observations of tittlebats. Along with probing questions, Mr. Jacober's verse serves as a basis for group discussion of the novel.
The Dickens Fellowship of New York will mark its 50th anniversary with a trip to England in May aboard the Queen Mary, arriving in time for a Dickens festival across the Atlantic.
Heading south to East 31st Street at the undercroft of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, the Friends of Dickens meets on the first Saturday of each month. This newer group -their motto is "Friendship and Learning" - is presently discussing "David Copperfield."
The upstart Friends of Dickens's principal organizer, Mike Quinn, became interested in the writer as a high school sophomore. He is a former New York State parole officer who now works in security at Estee Lauder. He also belongs to a literary association devoted to the work of famed Spanish novelist and dramatist Benito Perez Galdos, who was born in the Canary Islands.
Mr. Quinn's group began to meet on a regular basis around 1993 or 1994; an attempted rapprochement between the two groups around 1996 was unsuccessful.
Despite the split, the Dickens societies enjoy success. Both are actively brimming with plans. The Friends of Dickens has launched an essay contest for high school students in Manhattan. It announced that it hopes to present a lecture and performance about connections between Zen philosophy and the Dickensian oeuvre, put together by a Dickens scholar and two actors. Meanwhile, the Dickens Fellowship of New York is planning its annual Dickensian Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanzaa holiday party in December.
Such duopolies exist in other spheres: Professional prestidigitators choose between two friendly rivals, the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians. And among hereditary organizations, there are the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and the Colonial Dames of America, as well as Sons of the Revolution and Sons of the American Revolution.
Rival literary societies are not unusual, either. At least two groups regularly host Shakespeare-related events in the city.
"Shakespeare is so popular and so broadly appreciated that it serves the purpose of appreciation to have as much as we can," said Adriana Mnuchin, co-founder of the Shakespeare Society, many of whose events regularly take place at the Kaye Playhouse.
The coordinator of the Shakespeare Guild's "Speaking of Shakespeare" program at the National Arts Club, Marc Levy, concurred.
"Any subject that is worthy of one group, is worthy of two," he said "It is always desirable to have as many viewpoints as possible." On November 15, the Shakespeare Society will feature "Hamlet's Appeal," a moot court before five judges in which the famed Shakespearean character goes on trial.
"Since any organization will undoubtedly reflect the viewpoint of its leaders, it is usually necessary to have multiple organizations if you want to want to present the full spectrum of views," Mr. Levy said.
Despite occasional rifts, the world of literary societies is one in which fraternal advice is often found. The Browning Society, for example, has an upcoming meeting with a representative of the Yeats Society to discuss event planning and promotion.
So, for those who love Dickens, the literary landscape is not bleak. There are great expectations for an international conference in Philadelphia in 2007. Dickens remains popular enough for two organizations to exist. As Mr. Quinn said of Dickens, "He was the 19th-century equivalent of a rock star"