“At all times, and under every aspect, he gives us to feel and see the great city as it absolutely is.”
So wrote John Forster in his review of Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, the ultimate chronicler of London in all its Victorian greatness and degradation.
I first came to an appreciation of Dickens while riding Bus Australia. I picked up a copy of Great Expectations in a second-hand bookshop in Adelaide, and proceeded to devour it on the great lonely highway somewhere between the opal mines of Coober Pedy and the low-slung buildings of Alice Springs. It was a landscape as far removed from the crowds and the grime and the melodrama of Dickensian London as you could get. Perhaps it served as an antidote to the endless expanse of dry, red desert all around me, or perhaps I was simply in the right frame of mind, but I was hooked. After a frankly uninspired introduction to Dickens at school, I finally got what all the fuss was about.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m back in the Smoke. The Charles Dickens Museum, housed at 48 Doughty Street in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury district, has re-opened after a £3.1 million refurbishment in 2012, the 200 anniversary of Dickens’ birth, and it really is past time that I visit.
I pay my £8, and venture into the entrance hall. The ceiling is high and there are letters and playbills hanging on the wall; I get a distinct sense of stepping back in time.
There’s a painting in the dining room showing the young Charles Dickens in all his youthful glory. He looks the epitome of the Romantic poet, with his dark curly hair and big, soulful eyes. There’s something of the Regency dandy about him, in his fine, tailored clothes. Dickens always liked to cut a distinctive figure. “A fine little fellow,” Thomas Carlyle once called him, “a quiet, shrewd-looking, little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are.”
Dickens was also a sociable fellow, and this cozy dining room could, just about, hold some 14 people, squeezed around the dining table. For no one turned down a dinner invitation from Charles Dickens. Against the muted soundtrack of convivial conversation and the tinkle of cutlery, I like to imagine the up and coming young writer entertaining his guests, among them William Makepeace Thackeray, John Forster, the actor Macready, and artists Daniel Maclise and Clarkson Stanfield. Dickens may have been young, a mere 25 years old, when he moved into this fine terraced house in Bloomsbury, but everyone knew he was a force to be reckoned with.
Stepping back in time
Dickens lived here between 1837 and 1839, his three-year lease costing him the princely sum of £80 a year. It’s the only one of his London houses to survive, and was turned into a museum in 1925. It was something of a jumbled mess, apparently, but after the refurbishment it re-opened in December 2012 to great acclaim. Today the house is less a museum and more of a home, albeit one far tidier than any home I’ve ever lived in.
There’s a delicious sense that Dickens has just stepped out – to visit his publishers, perhaps, or the Piazza Coffee House in Covent Garden for a meeting of the Shakespeare Club – and will be back shortly. Peeking out from behind the heavy curtains, I am disappointed not to find a hansom cab pulling up outside.
Inside, the house has been restored to its Georgian and early Victorian splendor, from the basement to the attic, from the heavy drapes to the polished wood. The exhibits – rare manuscripts, letters, paintings, and personal belongings – are arranged in a manner both discreet and enticing. There’s an eye-catching silver-plated samovar in the dining room, and beautiful paintings, by Carlo Perugino and John Everett Millais, of Dickens’ daughters in the living room. Katey and Mary were both born here at Doughty Street, a reminder of Dickens the family man.
I linger in the drawing room on the first floor. The warm voice of Simon Callow reads from Dickens’ work, and I suspect the speakers are hidden somewhere behind the great man’s’ favorite armchair in the corner. I make my way around the dark green sofa and head towards the reading lectern as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Dickens was one of the first authors to read from his works, and he had this lectern built to his own design. It’s a sturdy, yet elegant structure, and I thrill to the idea that Dickens stood before it to read extracts from his books. He long had a fascination for the stage, and I like to think his voice was every bit as warm and commanding as Callow’s.
His study lies next door, a dimly-lit room full of books and a sturdy writing desk. Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist in this very room, and that thought alone is worth the price of admission.
I really must get myself a writing desk.
The next floor contains the bedrooms, arenas for life and death. His daughters were born in the master bedroom, and his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died in the room next door, at the tender age of 17. The room’s exhibits focus on Dickens’ later years, from the court suit he wore for his audience with Queen Victoria to the copy of Sir Samuel Luke Fildes’ painting The Empty Chair, a response to Dickens’ sudden death in 1870. He had been in poor health for a while, but his death still came as a shock.
The four-poster bed in the master bedroom looks cozy and rather small. Were people really smaller back then? I wonder. I mention as much to the petite volunteer standing next to me. She nods.
“I would have fit right in,” she says.
She leads me to the dressing room next door and points out a caricature of Dickens and his good friend John Forster, which exaggerates their difference in height. A cartoon on the opposite wall takes a different tack: it shows Dickens striding across the Channel, one foot in London, the other in Paris, a veritable literary colossus. He may have been small in stature, but he cast a giant’s shadow.
Originally, the rooms at the top of the house were set aside for the nursery and the servants’ quarters. Today, they are sparsely furnished, the nursery less a place for play and more a place for memory. In the middle of the room there are bars from Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, where Dickens’ irresponsible father was imprisoned for debt, and one of the display cabinets holds jars from the blacking factory by the river Thames where Dickens worked as a child. He rarely spoke of this experience, yet it coloured much of his writing. I doubt I can read Oliver Twist in quite the same way now that I’ve seen this room.
On a lighter note, the tea and cake on offer in the cafe is delicious, and the bowls on sale in the gift ship, marked ‘Please can I have some more’, make me smile. The man of the house may have been out at the time of my visit, but I like to think he would approve of his home’s new lease of life.