Engraving of "Mrs. Dombey at Home" by H.K. Browne. published in Charles Dickens' "Dombey and Son" in 1875

Please, Sir, I Want Some More…

6th January 2012

Charles Dickens is perhaps the best-loved of all the English novelists – and certainly the finest to have written about London. As Dickens 2012 gears up, enthusiasm for reading about the man and his works seems to be higher than ever, observes Jack Watkins…

It’s going to be an eventful year in London in 2012. You won’t be able to breathe for hype about the Olympic Games, but those for whom the goings-on in Stratford hold minimal interest can look forward to an alternative attraction. The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is being marked by a fanfare of activities, including new biographies, public readings, exhibitions and film seasons. With much coverage also earmarked for TV and radio, it’s a fair guess that if your enthusiasm for the great man is partial, or non-existent, it will only be a couple of months before you feel thoroughly Dickensed out.

I’m reading The Pickwick Papers at the moment. It’s early Dickens – the first serialisation came out in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne – so you quickly realise that the environment which shaped the author’s imagination wasn’t really Victorian at all, but late Georgian. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, writes that ‘in his ardour, in his theatricality, even in his vulgarity’, he was really a man from the beginning of the 19th century. By the time of Dickens’s death in 1870, Ackroyd explains, ‘these characteristics had left the English, or rather, been supplanted by a certain practicality and steadiness’. In his social concerns, Dickens may have been a man ahead of his time, but in his manners and his behaviour he probably appeared very much a figure from the past – and knew himself to be that too.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the one surviving former residence of the writer to remain in London also dates from the beginning of the 19th century. No 48 Doughty Street is a tall, narrow house in a long Georgian terrace, just north of Gray’s Inn, where Dickens worked as a clerk in a lawyer’s office at the age of 15. This area of residential properties had been built as comfortable homes for the rising middle class of the day, with a gate at each end to preserve the quiet atmosphere. Despite its proximity to the gusty Gray’s Inn Road, and the fact that most of the houses are now converted to offices, the street retains its peacefulness.

Dickens, newly married and with a young child, moved in here in 1837, staying long enough to complete The Pickwick Papers, and to write Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in his study on the first floor. It was also at Doughty Street that his sister-in-law, 17 year-old Mary Hogarth, died in his arms with such tragic suddenness, after a family outing to the theatre. Dickens never truly recovered from the experience, and later relived it with the death of little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Now the Charles Dickens Museum and HQ of the Dickens Fellowship (fifty branches around the world), with the largest repository of Dickens-related material, 48 Doughty Street draws visitors from across the globe. However, if you intend to make a visit as part of the bicentenary celebrations, go soon for the Museum will close in April for six months to undergo a £3.1m restoration programme known as ‘Great Expectations’.

The Museum opened in 1925. The Fellowship had stepped in to save the house from the threat of demolition, but while this is a Dickens shrine (containing the desk at which he wrote his last words, numerous paintings and drawings of characters from his books, a beautiful portrait of his wife Catherine, and a fascinating line of illustrations and photographs of the man himself, showing the changes in his appearance over the years, from the handsome young man in his twenties to the grizzled old lion in his fifties), some kind of renovation is overdue.

Already, as part of the works, the Museum has a larger café and an enlarged gift shop, but there is more to come, reveals curator Fiona Jenkins, explaining that the ‘Great Expectations’ project “is about capturing the spirit of Dickens or, as I call it, climbing into his slippers and smoking jacket. It’s easy to forget that he was still a rising author with a young family when he was here, an aspiring middle class man whose career hadn’t yet peaked. This museum has always had a charm of its own, and we don’t want to lose that, but we want to give it more of a feel of the man, and of the circumstances in which he – and his neighbours – lived in at that time.”

In the gift shop, meanwhile, you are certainly spoilt for choice with books about his life. His great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Dickens-Hawksley has written a special bicentenary celebration, and there’s even a lavishly illustrated reprint of the first ever Dickens biography, by his close friend and confidante John Forster. The book that is drawing most acclaim at present, however, is Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, published by Penguin/Viking. Tomalin is one of our most accomplished biographers, having already covered Austen, Wordsworth and Hardy, although you could argue that, at 400 pages, her new book is perhaps too brief to adequately cover a subject whose life, shortish as it was, was so hectic and incident-filled.

Still, if you are looking for an elegant and accessible read, this is probably the biography to have. There are even maps of Dickens locations in Gad’s Hill, Rochester and London, which make you want to get out and explore the connections. Tomalin does not venerate her subject unduly, showing that his personal callowness could, at times, be curiously at odds with his avowed progressive instincts. Still, when he died aged 58, he was widely mourned. In all the time since, he has hardly ever been out of fashion, so if anyone deserves a potentially exhausting year of celebrations, even his detractors have to admit that it probably deserves to be him…


The Charles Dickens Museum: www.dickensmuseum.com

A three-month film season, Dickens on Screen,
at National Film Theatre from 1 January: www.bfi.org

Dickens and London exhibition
at Museum of London until 10 June: www.museumoflondon.org.uk

A Hankering After Ghosts: Dickens & the Supernatural exhibition
at British Library until 4 March.

Dickens 2012, a year-long celebration of the author,
comprising various activities around Britain: www.dickens2012.org

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