Literary Tourism: What the Dickens?

I love Charlie Dickens. I’ve loved him since I was a small child when Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation warmed my heart and Mrs Havisham languishing in her dusty wedding-dress terrified me and my encounter with Fagin made me consider petty theft as a way of supplementing my meagre pocket-money. I love all of his novels, except for the one I haven’t read yet: Bleak House. I’ve attempted Bleak House three times because it’s supposed to be his best novel– and I’ve never managed to wade past page forty. Between the small print, and the flood of characters introduced at the outset, reading it required intense concentration. It became an endurance exercise in squinting and frowning, and clearly, my facial muscles weren’t up to the task.

Anyway, I’ve forgiven Charles Dickens for Bleak House, and for the fact that it added at least one extra furrow to my brow, and two crow’s toes to the skin around my eyes. A good thing too, because I recently had the opportunity to visit the Charles Dickens Museum. I was in London visiting my sister, and I decided that it would be a lovely way to pass a couple of hours. Off I went on the tube to Russel Square Station and made my way to 48 Doughty Street.

48 Doughty Street is a three-storey, terraced, red-bricked Georgian building, and it was Dickens’ former home between 25 March 1837 to December 1839. It’s the only former home of his that is currently open to the public.  The entry fee for the museum is a very reasonable £9.50 for adults. Once you step through the museum’s vermillion green door, you’ll be transported back to the 19th Century and into an upper-middle-class Londoner’s home. You will learn about England at that time, about Dickens the man and, of course, Dickens the writer.

A Social History Museum:

Although the house is Georgian, it is decorated in the style of the Victorian era, but the Victorian era wasn’t merely notable for its distinctive aesthetic. Huge social changes were afoot in England following the industrial revolution and London’s population had increased rapidly. Due to public pressure and Church initiatives, literacy levels had increased massively across the country. A great many of our beloved classic novels were written in the Victorian era in response to the sudden explosion in the market for books. Finally, authors were enjoying fame and fortune from their writing, and Charles Dickens and his peers took full advantage of this. In the time before television, and the passive consumption of entertainment, books were the ultimate form of escape from the everyday.

I’m fascinated by social history. I suppose one of the reasons why is that, as a woman, my life and sphere of influence would have been restricted to the domestic, and so the everyday lives of ordinary people interest me far more than the stories of big wars and political manoeuvring that feature in most history books. I want to know what people ate, and where they slept, what they wore, how they worked and how they amused themselves, and this museum offers all of this and more. Most authors’ homes are social history museums too to some extent, but this one even more so. Charles Dickens was a renowned social critic, satirist, commentator and reformer. 

48 Doughty Street is an example of what an upper-middle-class home would have been like in Victorian times. You can wander around the servants quarters, the kitchen, the washroom, the dining room, bedrooms, dressing room, drawing-room and cellar, as well as the nursery where Dickens’ children played and slept. You can take in the decor, the ornaments, the paintings, the trinkets, the furnishings, and know that a great many houses across London would have looked very similar, though they would be unlikely to have housed such famous inhabitants.

The house is beautiful, but not everyone that lived there was fortunate enough to live like Dickens. The museum recounts the stories of the lives of the working-class inhabitants of the house in the kitchen and servants’ quarters. I’m sure that they were treated better than most servants, as Dickens’ intense sympathy for the poor and his passionate desire to see their lives improved is clear from his writing. Dickens believed that his novels had the potential to influence readers morally and politically, and he was right to use fiction as a medium for influencing people’s views. Reading  has been proven to increase empathy.

If you are interested in learning a little more about the poverty suffered by many in Victorian London, and the inspiration behind one of Dickens’ most famous novels, the Foundling Museum is a very short walk from the Dickens museum and well worth a visit. The Foundling Hospital was Britain’s first hospital for abandoned children. Dickens and his wife, Catherine spent a lot of time there, as it housed the chapel that was their place of worship. The Dickenses raised awareness of the hospital and the plight of the children abandoned to the care of its patrons. It’s a stark reminder that London’s wave of economic success and social change didn’t sweep everyone along with it.

A Museum of the Writer:

The servants’ quarters: the walls are covered in quotations from his writings

The Charles Dickens Museum didn’t earn its title easily. The building holds the world’s largest collection of Dickens’ rare book editions, letters and original manuscripts. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick papers within the walls of this very house, and you can enter his study and gaze upon the very desk that he scribbled and toiled over as he crafted his unforgettable characters. One of my favourite rooms in the house is the servants’ quarters, whose walls are decorated in the most thought-provoking and famous quotes from his novels.

When you visit this museum you will have a lot of ‘ah, that’s where he got that from’ moments. People tell writers all the time: ‘write what you know’. Dickens was absolutely a man that wrote what he knew and achieved great success in doing so. Inside the museum, you’ll find information on the various people, places and creatures that were sources of inspiration to Dickens, such as Grip, his pet raven, his tragic sister-in-law Mary and the nearby Foundling Hospital. What becomes abundantly clear about Dickens the writer, is that he was fascinated by people. Unlike many writers, he didn’t keep himself aloof or apart from the people that he studied, he mingled amongst them, lived with them, loved them, despised them. He observed, in close proximity, their foibles, weaknesses, motivations and their sufferings. He was moved by their pain, empathetic to their plight, and critical of their misdeeds.

A Museum of the Man:

As well as holding the largest collection of Dickens’ writerly memorabilia, the museum holds the largest collection of Dickens’ personal belongings, family mementoes, portraits. Dickens moved to Doughty Street shortly after his wedding to Catherine Hogarth, when he was aged only twenty-five years of age and it is in this house that the first two of his ten children were born. You will learn about the many highs and lows in his life, his passion for fashion, and his love of entertaining.

In terms of learning about Dickens the man from the house itself, I know my favourite room should have been his study, but it wasn’t. This could be because I had nightmarish visions of poor Dickens toiling away in an ocean of balled-up paper frantically trying to fill cavernous plot-holes. No. The room that I spent the most time in was the dining-room, which was the first room I wandered into on my tour. It’s a gorgeous room with pale blue walls, decorated with portraits of Charles and his wife Catherine as young people, just as they were whilst living in this house. It was in this room that I could imagine Dickens at his most animated because Dickens was as far from the reclusive, introverted stereotype of a novelist as you can get. He threw many parties, and liked to dress flamboyantly– he was quite the dandy. He was also an actor who acted out scenes from his own plays, a skilled orator and speechwriter, and would regularly treat guests to readings from his works-in-progress. He was a man that liked to be read, but he also liked very much to be seen and heard. 

On the dining table there are six places set, and at each place lies a plate. Each plate features the face of a person with whom Dickens would have associated with, and beside each plate, there’s a description of who that person was and what their relationship to Dickens was. I got a real sense of who Charles Dickens was, by the company he kept. Many of his friends were famous in their own rights, such as the author William Makepeace Thackeray and the artist, Daniel Maclise, but all were accomplished in their respective fields. Dickens socialised with artists, illustrators, fellow novelists, medical practitioners and lawyers. Dickens’ wife also features on her own plate, a published author in her own right. It was in this room here that I could vividly picture Dickens, holding court with his guests; the room filled with people, everyone dressed beautifully, smoking pipes and cigars and going through bottle after bottle of wine from the cellar beneath the house. They would be discussing politics, social reform, writing and art and laughing as Charles Dickens made witty jokes and shared his incisive observations on the world.

Thanks to my visit to the museum I understood that Dickens was not just a very talented writer who depicted fascinating characters in his novels; he was a fascinating character in his own right. Until I visited the museum I didn’t know that Dickens had left school at twelve to work and lived in a debtors’ prison with his family as a child.  I didn’t know that he had a very chatty pet raven named Grip.  I didn’t know that he and his wife parted ways after Dickens had an affair. These are just some of the gems of information I gleaned from my visit to the museum. They gave Dickens a three-dimensionality that he didn’t have for me before. It means that next time I attempt to read Bleak House, I’ll be reading it in the knowledge that Dickens knew poverty, he knew wealth, he knew society, and most importantly, he understood people.

My purchases from the gift shop.

The museum has a cafe which sells great coffee, and a quaint little gift shop. Of course, I love gift shops so I went in and had a nosey and I couldn’t help myself. I bought a canvas bag… to go with my copy of Bleak House! Yes! I bought it again after losing the last one. I’m hoping that my investment will lead me to give it one final chance. So far, it’s still sitting on my bedside locker, propping up my TBR pile. I am currently attaching weights to my face and exercising my frowning and squinting muscles in readiness for the great (but no doubt, worthwhile) undertaking ahead of me.

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CatherineEDay

My name is Catherine Day. After practising law for many years, I've decided to take the leap, leave law temporarily, and write the novel I've always wanted to write.

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