THE CHARLES DICKENS MUSEUM IS A DELIGHT FOR LITERATURE LOVERS
In Camden you can visit the only surviving former home of Charles Dickens, one of England’s most famous writers. The house was recently renovated to the tune of £3 million and is decorated in the Georgian style as it would have been when Dickens lived there. The house is a 10-minute walk from Russell Square tube station.
Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX
Admission costs £9 for adults (£7 for students and seniors) and £4 for children aged 6 to 16. Children aged under 6 can enter for free. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Last entry is at 4 p.m. Please check the museum’s website for more details.
Being from the provinces I have always associated London with the writer Charles Dickens. Long before I first walked London’s streets I had already traversed the city, as it were, in the pages of numerous dog-eared books. Until I was around eight or nine years old Scrooge, Mr. Micawber and Quilp – “an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect” – were as real to me as the mangy laces that held together my shoes.
It was therefore with great interest that I learned in early adulthood of the existence of the Charles Dickens Museum. It was better still to note that the museum was more than the usual panoply of artefacts laid out mournfully in some frigid town hall. Instead this was a museum situated in one of Dickens’ former homes. Indeed, you could walk on the same floorboards trodden on two centuries ago by one of England’s greatest writers.
For those of us who write for a living, a visit to 48 Doughty Street represents a sort of pilgrimage. A feeling of reverence hangs over proceedings as I imagine it must do for a Christian in Jerusalem or a Muslim in Mecca. This is no ordinary mixture of cement and plasterboard and carpeting and rooftiles. Rather it is – or at least it was – the laboratory in which a man with an unusual and remarkable talent sat at his desk and brought reams of paper to life.
Dickens lived for two years in this grand town house in Camden. The house was built in around 1805, and Dickens moved in with his wife Catherine and their young son – also named Charles – on a three-year lease at £80 a year in 1837. The two years Dickens spent at Doughty Street was a short yet prodigious period in both his career and personal life: while residing here, Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Catherine also gave birth to two daughters.
Dickens’s time at Doughty Street was, for the most part, a happy one. His stature in literary London was rising. The largest room in the house is the brightly lit drawing room where Dickens would have entertained his guests. I was handed a set of headphones on entry and listened to audio readings while imagining Dickens heartily regaling friends and family with witticisms and intimate performances of his works. Dickens frequently had illustrious friends around for dinner, including Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray and William Ainsworth, creator of the character Dick Turpin.
But the house on Doughty Street was also the scene of a tragedy in 1819 when Mary Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law who lived with the young couple, died suddenly from a mysterious illness aged just 17. On the first floor of the building is situated the Mary Hogarth room, the bedroom where the tribulation occurred that would send Dickens into one of the deep depressions that would affect him throughout his life.
Dickens hailed from the provinces: he was born in Southsea, Portsmouth in 1812, before arriving in London with his young parents, John and Elizabeth, at the age of three. At the very top of the Doughty Street house is a room which documents the financial struggles of Dickens’s father, who in 1824 was sent in disgrace to Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark, south London. The character of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield is purportedly based on John Dickens, and at Doughty Street one can even lay one’s hands on a set of the rusty prison bars salvaged from the windows of the long-demolished prison.
Charles Dickens’s work can be rather mawkish and sentimental at times, yet his influence is inescapable. As George Orwell noted, “The thought of Christmas raises almost automatically the thought of Charles Dickens”. His lingering shadow looms over us like an old grandfather clock, while the immortal characters he fashioned with his quill pen – of rich men who come to see the error of their ways and a ragged London poor ground mercilessly into the dirt by Victorian capitalism – bolster the idea that we live in a country where inequality is alleviated by a “heart that never hardens” rather than by bloody revolution.
Nearly 150 years after Charles Dickens’s death, we still live in a nation soaked in Dickensian sentimentalism.