Anyone who loves literature is no stranger to London. Whether it’s Caroline Bingley pining for the society of Grosvenor Square or Harry Potter catching the Hogwarts Express the first time, readers have become acquainted with different parts of the city for centuries. That’s part of what’s so fun about walking around London today. Whether we realize it or not, we’re experiencing a place that has been a part of our lives for as long as we’ve been reading books.
For some writers, London was a character itself. This was especially true for Charles Dickens, who saw the city as both a savior of sorts and a systematic oppressor of the poor.
As one of the best known and best loved writers in the English language, Dickens was able to create characters who stay with us for a good long while after we read his books. I dare you to tell me that you’ve never quoted Oliver Twist in your life. He was also able to paint a picture of London that stays with readers for about as long as his characters. Charity schools, debtors prisons, butchers’ markets, and the Thames all weave into and out of his stories in an integral way, so that his stories couldn’t possibly have taken place anywhere else.
At the time that he was writing, Dickens was a celebrity in England. He did public readings of his works, he participated in play productions for charity fundraisers, he met the Queen, and he gave dinner parties that were well-stocked in the alcohol and games departments. He took twelve-mile walks, he opened a reform house for poor women, he traveled the world, and he fought for the rights of writers to maintain their copyrights. He was truly one of a kind, as his pseudonym (“the inimitable Boz”) aptly suggests.
For as much as he loved London – no matter how he tried to get out of the city, he kept coming back – London loved him even more. When he died, he was offered (his family did not seek) a burial in Westminster Abbey, in the Poets’ Corner. After having made the decision to accept the place in Westminster Abbey, the arrangements for the funeral service were made in secret so that the family could have a private funeral. Once they left, the church was again opened to the public, and thousands of people filed past, leaving notes and flowers on the grave.
In the fervor to preserve his connection to the city, one of the houses he lived in was turned into a museum dedicated to his life in London.
I say one of the houses that he lived in because that same urge that caused Dickens to take twelve-mile rambles through the city caused him to pack up the whole kit and caboodle and move house more than once. The kit and caboodle was quite sizeable, too: He had a wife, ten children, nurses for all of the children, and a dog. I mean, I have a bookshelf and a cat and I dread the ordeal of moving. If Dickens lived in modern times, we might say that his motto was “Go big or go home.” However, the house at 48 Doughty Street is special: Firstly, because it’s still standing, and secondly, because it’s one of the first houses he bought in London. He lived at 48 Doughty Street from 1837 until 1839.
When last I visited London, I met up with one of my college buddies (the same one I met in Catania – we were at it again!) and we had ourselves a literary weekend. We started off by seeing a play at the Blackfriars (the Globe’s indoor counterpart), then we went to the Dickens House, then we took selfies with Samuel Johnson’s cat, then we took a tour of Shakespearean and Dickens’s London. Our motto: Go nerdy or go home. I have to say, the Dickens House was one of my favorite attractions of the weekend (not that any of them were bad).
The entire house has been remodeled and refitted with furniture of the time, Dickens’s books and letters, and even one of the grates from Marshalsea Prison, the debtors’ prison where Dickens’s father did time. Signs and pamphlets throughout the house explain what Dickens was doing at different points in his life, how the family lived in the house, and how Dickens entertained his large group of friends in a house with ten children and a dog running around underfoot. One room is completely dedicated to his work for authors’ rights. He campaigned heavily throughout Great Britain and the United States for the right of the author to maintain copyrights, as well as the right to punish literary pirates. In those days, it was fairly common for publishers to steal the work of writers from other countries and print their books without paying them (the Dickens House focuses on the American publishers who did this to Dickens, but there were a fair few British publishers who stole the work of American writers at the time as well). In fact, Dickens had his share of fights with his own publishers over how much he would get paid for his pieces and had falling outs with several printing houses that would not meet his demands.
One thing was for sure: Charles Dickens was a force to be reckoned with. As was his conception of the city of London.
Perhaps most importantly for a place such as the Dickens House, there is a wonderful bookstore on the ground level. They sell several different editions of most of Dickens’s works, as well as little trinkets that prove a visit to such a place.