“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale… Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.” A ‘Dickensian’ world has become a figure of speech, evoking grim workhouses and haunted graveyards, frosty snowy streets and cosy fire-lit homes.
Two special exhibitions in London will give you vivid insights into the life of the author — born on February 7th, 1812 — and his characters.
Senate House Library has mustered illustrated editions of Dickens’ works together with images of real locations that inspired him.
He had experienced factory work and debtors’ prison as a child and systematically researched squalid slums fostering crime and prostitution or schools notorious for child abuse.
Many portraits seem just lifted out of his stories.
Ragged barefoot street children lounge about, amongst them a boy wearing a bowler hat and smoking a pipe, evidently a future gangster boss. Young children are seen squeezing into dark and dangerous mine shafts. An item in a charity report is titled “An orphan, naked and starving, hidden in a coal-hole”.
There are Government reports on child labour in workhouses, early pieces of investigative journalism, and documents from charities, including nearby Foundling hospital and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. In a video, a descendant of Dickens explains his dedication to relieving the lot of paupers.
When you see those revolting pictures of real and fictitious characters – including Dickens himself in a biography (above) – you appreciate the grotesque nature of his figures and settings more. Most of us cannot begin to imagine the horrors of daily life for countless people only five or six generations ago.
The show Childhood in Dickensian London focuses on young heroes and heroines who are deprived of means and support but strong of will and character. A number of them reverse roles by taking care of relatives at a tender age.
We also learn that 19th-century popular culture was not so different from ours.
When Dickens he wanted to throw a limelight onto child labour and poverty, he chose a novella over a pamphlet – the result was his cult story A Christmas carol. Stories published in instalments kept the audience in suspense and stirred empathy, just like our television series do; when a character died, there was collective grief.
In order to get even closer to the celebrated author and his world, you you need not venture any further than Doughty Street, just beyond Brunswick Square and Coram Fields. Behind one of those facades of dark bricks, neat but rather plain and narrow, you may see chandeliers blink and red velvet curtains shine, from a splendid family home spreads over five floors.
The Charles Dickens Museum surrounds you with its massive sideboards and silverware, oriental rugs and framed pictures, four-poster beds and washstands of the young household (with the first three of ten children). There is even an absurdly elegant suit and some precious jewellery – the man surely had written himself out of abject poverty.
In the study, you marvel at by bookcases up to the ceiling and sense some of the inspiration at a desk like this, although it struck me that the room has no window. Dickens accomplished much of his toil by dark at any rate: he would go on long walks through London deep in the night to gather ideas and exercise his quill by candlelight or lamplight.
There is an instructive video on the still very deficient lighting technologies of the time: reading was a privilege because books, obviously, were a privilege, but so was light, and so was time… Most people simply spent most waking hours, or at least most daylight hours, working. Even some at Dickens’ home: just step down into the kitchen and scullery.
You can even still get a whiff of the Victorian Christmas the writer is most famous for, even though the house is not decked for Christmas with evergreens nor the table graced by a roast turkey any more: right until Easter, the exhibition on Dickens and the business of Christmas presents original manuscripts and fine editions of Dickens’ countless stories for the occasion. The show maps out the overlap of the publishing industry and the festive time just as they both expanded considerably in the nineteenth century.
You will also observe some more of the idyllic side of Victorian life, with piles of delicious dishes (and the recipes compiled by Dickens’ wife Catherine), with games and dances and performances for children and adults and all of them together. A copy of the very first Christmas card has come to you from America!
In my next blogposts, I shall give you tips on how to find literature about Charles Dickens and about the history of childhood in general at UCL Libraries. Until then, settle down at the bookcase set up in Senate House Library for you, ask a librarian or consult our catalogue and LibGuides – and enjoy these two exhibitions and the one about children’s play which I reviewed here before!
- Childhood in Dickensian London is on at Senate House Library until 20 June.
- Beautiful books: Dickens and the business of Christmas is on at the Charles Dickens Museum until 19 April.
- Play well: Why play matters is on at the Wellcome Collection until 8 March.
Some relevant books at the Newsam Library, UCL Institute of Education.
- Dickens calendar for 1908 at ‘Beautiful books’. Photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Dickens at the blacking factory. From a biography by John Forster. Memorial edition, 1911. Copyright Senate House Library.
- Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street. Credit, Siobhan Doran; photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Study. Credit, Newangle; photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Servants’ quarters, attic. Credit, Siobhan Doran; photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Dining room. Credit, Siobhan Doran; photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Tiny books at ‘Beautiful books’. Photography copyright, Dickens Museum.
- Wooden toys at ‘Play well’. Reprinted from Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman, collection Elyse and Lawrence B. Benenson.