The Charles Dickens Museum

In which I have a quiet stroll around and am late for a meeting.

Well, readers, it’s a been a while since my last post. This is a very busy time for me: there are courses to plan and lessons to prepare. I also have jam to make, not to mention all those little jobs in the garden I have to look at, contemplate for a while and then decide to leave for next week. It is precisely the latter activity that has led me back to the computer to pen (keyboard?) another museum review.

For most commuters, myself included, it’s easy to forget how much of the City you are missing. All I really saw for the first couple of years of working in London was the insides of railways stations and grimy walls of tunnels, in which the tube would be delayed for sometimes interminable periods of time. Tube trains are not conducive for reading, either: the press of people and endless announcements make it a stressful experience. All very necessary if you have to cross to the other side of the capital but I commuted like this for a couple of years before I realised that, as well as costing me money, it wasn’t really saving me any time. Two stops on the underground was about a mile and half and took me about 20 minutes. So I invested in a fairly good umbrella (for about the cost of one journey) and took to ambling above ground. In doing so, I was able to discover lost little communities and pleasant urban streets that otherwise I would never have found.

The stuffed raven recalls Grip, which Dickens kept as a pet.

I found myself slowing down considerably: rising above the bustle (literally) and taking the pace down a bit. Now … this is not an easy thing for me to achieve: I only have one speed setting, midway between stroll and saunter; slowing this even further is a tall order.  Nevertheless, I was able to take my time and take in my surroundings, wandering around interesting shops, or museums, taking tea occasionally or perhaps stopping to read in one of London’s many parks or squares. Taking ones time is good for the soul. One of my regular routes took me through Gray’s Inn and along Doughty Street to Mecklenburg Square. Among the locations I discovered at this time was the Charles Dickens Museum: I walked past this modest terraced house at 48 Doughty Street on my journey to and from work every day for several years but never went in. It was quite a low-profile place at the time: I am pleased to say that it is now increasing in popularity and, on a recent visit to London, I stopped in to have a look around.

The quiet Holborn street where Dickens made his home in 1837

Charles Dickens was a keen walker himself: he would spend hours wandering the streets, observing the characters as they went about their business. He became notorious for the fast pace of his walking, and frequently would refer to his habit of ‘lurking’ in the shadows: to observe without being observed. He was particularly keen on walking at night, when he could witness London’s dark underworld: the thieves, urchins, whores and ne’er-do-wells that populate so many of his stories. When Dickens moved into Doughty street he was a young man, just starting to make his way in the world. He had married Catherine Hogarth the previous year and they had a baby son, Charley. The had another two children, both daughters, whilst living in the house.  Dickens had recently started writing fiction, following a reasonably successful career as a journalist: his ‘sketches’ of London life were gaining him admirers among the public, as well as among the literary establishment. Dickens loved to be among friends: he loved to drink, to entertain, to tell stories and to read aloud. Among the friends he entertained at Doughty Street were Daniel Maclise, George Cruikshank, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and John Forster, who was to become his closest friend and biographer. Moving in with the Dickens family were Charles’s younger brother, Frederick, and Catherine’s teenage sister, Mary. The little terraced house must have witnessed much laughter and happiness. It also saw its fair share of tragedy.

Victorian kitchens were notoriously dirty. This one suffered from an infestation of hedgehogs.

The part of London, close to Great Ormond Street Hospital and within easy walking distance of King’s Cross, is surprisingly quiet, if you consider its proximity to the Gray’s Inn Road. Doughty Street is tree-lined and leafy and feels like a suburb, rather than the centre of a busy modern city. It is quiet that you first notice on entering the museum, which is accessed via a neighbouring property. Visitors are taken on a route through the house but, unlike many museums, this is not strictly enforced and you are generally free to wander around. I noticed that many people skipped the basement completely, which contains kitchen, wash-house and wine cellar.  This surprised me as it is one of the most interesting parts of the whole house: displaying the inner workings of a Victorian household. The dining room, set as for a formal dinner, has a soundtrack of Victorian street sounds, so the gentle clip-clopping of hooves fills the room. Normally, I don’t go in for these sort of enhancements but, in this case, it worked rather well and added to the atmosphere already provided by the subdued light, with blinds drawn to protect delicate fabrics.

The house is very cleverly presented, with exhibits and artworks placed into rooms furnished as they would have been when the house was occupied. The drawing room contains one of Charles’s lecterns, from which he would have presented his famous and extremely popular readings of his own works. His bedroom reveals the more personal and private part of the house and the suit on display shows his preference for flamboyant clothing. At the back of the house is the small bedroom occupied by Mary Hogarth, which lends the property a note of sadness for it is here that, at the age of seventeen, Mary died, suddenly, of a mystery illness. Charles was devastated. He had become very close to Mary and her death, in his arms, upset him greatly. It is often said that Dickensian heroines changed profoundly following Mary’s death and you can see the effect in the works that followed, with little Nell and Nancy (in The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist) reflecting the heartbreaking loss of a young woman. Charles expressed a wish to be buried alongside her (though this never happened) and wore her ring for the rest of his life. The story is skilfully presented through the pictures and engravings that adorn the walls of her room. The whole house is lovingly presented. A special mention has to go to the staff: they are friendly and knowledgeable: I would guess that many of them are students earning some extra cash. They don’t intrude on your visit but are there should you want to ask anything and are encouraging and very smiley. In fact, this is possibly the warmest, friendliest museum I have ever visited.

A pint at the Lamb rounds off the museum nicely.

There is a lovely looking café in the garden (my third favourite thing about museums is tea shops) but I didn’t visit it on this occasion as I was keen to visit the Lamb in nearby Lamb’s Conduit Street. This little pub is something of a local landmark. the food and ale are both very good (I had a Young’s Special. Then another one) and there is a charming little courtyard garden that gets very busy during the summer. The Lamb was a favourite of Mr. Dickens. Now, anybody familiar with London will know that most of the pubs in the capital claim to have been frequented by Dickens. This is a fact that I used to scoff at: an attempt by market savvy pub managers to get tourists through the door. Since reading up on Mr. Dickens, however, I have to confess that it could well be true. The man drank an extraordinary amount and was rarely without a brandy flask.  His letters and diaries reveal the he took alcohol very seriously and drank an enormous amount of it: “I arrived home at one o’clock dead drunk & was put to bed by the missis” is a typical entry in his diary. The cellar in Doughty Street is large enough to keep a serious drinker happy for a very long time indeed.

I would have loved to have stayed longer but i was meeting friends in Islington that afternoon. I wandered there through the leafy streets of Clerkenwell (I was late but then, I usually am), recalling that this is where Dodger takes Oliver to teach him the secrets of his craft. Dickens has never fallen out of popularity and he has never been out of print. He is as much a part of our culture as Shakespeare and his characters are forever woven into the fabric of our capital.

One thought on “The Charles Dickens Museum

  1. Reading this was almost as good as directly experiencing it for myself – a restful and intriguing stroll imagining Dickens’ London and a pint at the end of it….DO give up the day job, I say, and be Lit Brit full-time!

    Liked by 1 person

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