Monday, July 28, 2008

Tired Feet

So...after seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching London, a good deal of its Dickensian and Victorian history, and walking down most of its central streets, what will I pass on to my students?

Why was Dickens such an important writer?

How was he influenced by London, the city in which he lived, and how did he, in turn, influence it?

What is his legacy?

How did he come to be the beloved figure that he is?

Good questions! I've been struggling to answer them since I began reading Dickens myself, twenty years ago, and after this trip, I have a much better idea. However, instead of dishing out a deluge of my thoughts, I'd rather refer to the experts. Read on to learn more about all I heard and saw from the Londoners I met. For a chronological look at my travels, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page and click on "older posts", then navigate to my first entry on July 18th.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Heading Home

My head is reeling with all that I saw and heard this week, and it will most likely continue to do so for at least a few more days. I hope that in the coming week I can put most of my thoughts down here so that you can share in my experience of the city and time period that created such a remarkable journalist/actor/writer/social critic/philanthropist/dramatist.

We're heading to the airport later today and in just 17 hours or so, we'll be back in Milwaukee. This whirlwind journey was exhilarating and exhausting and I am so very thankful to have had the opportunity to walk where Charles Dickens walked, eat where he ate, sit down and and think where he sat down and thought, ...look through books that he read, read notes that he scribbled, and THEN, listen to people who have been learning about his life and cherishing his work for their entire careers. It was truly amazing.

The tube that took us to the airport:
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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Charles Dickens Walk

Just as David Perdue (who is the creator of one of my favorite C.D. resources, David Perdue's Charles Dickens page at: http://charlesdickenspage.com) informed me, Jean Haynes, a City of London guide, arrived in costume and did a wonderful job, using dramatic voices and numerous direct quotes from his biographies and his novels.

A peak at a portion of the childhood of Charles Dickens when he lived in the countryside of Kent, as told by Jean Haynes:
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Charles's father, John Dickens worked for the Royal Navy as a clerk and for most of Charles's early childhood, the family enjoyed a comfortable middle class lifestyle. But John Dickens was reckless with his money and despite numerous promotions and a decent salary, he continuously spent more than he earned. When Charles was eleven, his family moved from the country back to London, and he stayed behind in Chatham, some believe, in order to finish the school term. A few months later he came to meet the family.

Once in London, his parents could no longer pay for Charles to go to school, and instead, a short while later, they began to count on him to bring in an extra income. Just days after his twelfth birthday, his parents arranged for Charles to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, a factory next to the River Thames that made boot polish and which was owned by a family friend. Understandably, Charles felt a bit abandoned by his parents and frustrated at his inability to continue with his education.

Jean describes the situation for us:
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The photo to the right shows two jars from this factory; both used to hold Warren's Boot Black, or shoe and boot polish. In his biography written by Peter Ackroyd, Dickens is quoted as saying that it was his job to "cover the pots of paste-blacking: first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat all round." He worked for ten hours a day, with a short meal break at twelve and a tea-break in the late afternoon. He is said to have "hurt bodily and mentally" due to the drudgery.

Dickens also said this about the factory in a squalid area of town next to the Thames:

it was "a crazy tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again."

As you can see in this small photo of a quote of his blown up into poster form, Dickens was dreadfully discouraged by this event. (Click on the photo to read the quote.) In his mind, his hopes of becoming an actor or writer or wildly successful man seemed dashed. His childhood was gone and it had not disappeared slowly or faded; it vanished overnight. To make things even more drastic, a few days after he was introduced to the blacking factory, his father was arrested for debt. A baker who lived near the Dickens family in Camden was owed forty pounds, which was a large amount of money in the early 1800's. John Dickens had not paid the baker for some time and he owed money to other people in London and even in Rochester, where the family lived when Dickens was first born.

He was put first in a "sponging house" or house for people who were about to be imprisoned for debt could have a chance to get help from family or friends before being locked away. It is believed that Charles was sent on errands by his father - to visit family members and ask for money on behalf of his father. What is known is that no one gave them any money. Perhaps they had asked for such help too many times before, and so, on February 20th, 1824, John Dickens was incarcerated, or locked up, in the Marshalsea Prison.

According to Peter Ackroyd, it was quite common for people to be arrested and imprisoned for not paying debts at that time:

"It has been estimated, for example, that in 1837 there were between 30,000 and 40,000 arrests for debt -- but nevertheless the insolvent debtor was classed as a quasi-criminal and kept in prison until he could pay...It often happened that such a prisoner remained indefinitely within the prison."

After his father was imprisoned, most of the families' belongings were sold off and his mother and younger siblings moved in to the prison as lodgers because it was cheaper than any other alternative. Many experts believe that the Marshalsea Prison haunted Dickens for the rest of his life. In fact Ackroyd states, "the high wall with the spikes on top of it, the shadows cast by the prison buildings, the lounging shabby people -- all of these images return again and again in his narratives."
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The Broad Street Pump


Using the map in the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, I wound my way through the streets of Soho, which was just a short walk north of my hotel, to find the former site of the Broad Street pump: the pump which was contaminated in the late summer of 1854 and spread one of history's most horrifying and infamous cases of cholera to thousands of the poor, working-class people of the neighborhood.

Many of the smaller streets have new names, but the larger ones are still there, just as they were in 1854. My sister Martha, who is studying biology at DePaul University read the book last year while in an epidemiology course and gave it to me this spring. I was enthralled by Johnson's writing and the way he pieced the case back together, day by day. A brief synopsis from Johnson's website states:

It is the summer of 1854. Cholera ha
s seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as a one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population - garbage removal, clean water, sewers - the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure.

As their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action: the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. In a riveting day-by-day account, The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak’s spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic - and solve the most pressing medical riddle of the age.

When I reached the corner of Broad (now Broadwick) and Lexington (which used to be Cambridge) and stood in front of 40 Broadwick Street, where the fatal pump once stood, there was no discernible spot marking the site of it. I figured out, within a few feet, where I thought it must have stood and then noticed the name of the pub in front of me: The John Snow. How fitting! He was after all, the doctor who worked tirelessly and fearlessly during the outbreak and then for years after it, documenting each and every case, slowly proving to the public and the government what caused cholera and how it could be stopped.

His struggle was made increasingly difficult because the majority of doctors and scientists believed that cholera was caused by breathing in dirty or putrid smelling air, not from dirty drinking water. They were so strict in their attachment to this belief that they refused to listen to him even after he gathered tons of evidence proving a direct link between the cholera deaths around Broad Street in 1854 and the dirty diaper of a baby who died of cholera and lived in the building that I was standing in.

Cholera, as Snow discovered, is spread by ingesting or swallowing small particles found in the feces of a person who already has it. Obviously, even in a very dirty city like London in the 1850's no one intentionally ate something or drank something with human feces in it. BUT, due to the fact there were very few flushing toilets, most people dumped their waste in a cesspit in their basement or backyard area or out into the gutters in the street, and that the sewer system was fairly new in some areas and non-existent in others, human waste often found its way into the water that people drank.

According to Snow's reports, while the baby was dying, her mother rinsed her dirty diaper in a bucket of water and then dumped the water into the cesspit in the basement of their building. Years later, after much investigating and probing, Snow found that there was a leak in the well right in front of the house which allowed dirty water from the cesspit to run into the well and that well was connected to the Broad Street pump!

After getting some strange looks and a few questions from the bartender, I was able to snoop around the building. It was lovely inside and besides the framed newspaper clippings and portrait in a corner of the upstairs lounge, you'd never know that this was the formerly overcrowded, run-down house that stood at the epicenter of a terrible, disgusting disease. I was extremely curious about the basement, since it would be close to where the overrun cesspit once was, but unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was clean and tidy and showed no trace of its former existence.

Dr. John Snow died in 1858 before the public widely accepted his theories about cholera. There were a few more outbreaks of cholera in the city and it wasn't until 1866 when another horrible outbreak occurred that another scientist tested Snow's ideas and traced the deaths along water-supply lines and found an immediate pattern: an overwhelming number of the dead had gotten their water from the same source. Therefore, at long last, the disease was said to be spread through drinking water and not foul-smelling air or miasma.

The illustration to the right was drawn in 1866 by George John Pinwell. It ran in an English magazine during that last large outbreak of cholera in London. It shows that finally:

public health officials were convinced that cholera was communicated through the water supply. Pinwell's image, which shows a skeleton figure of cholera working the handle of a pump, dispensing disease to all who imbibe the contaminated water, conveys the horror of the public realization that the population in 1866 might still unwittingly be exposing themselves to disease."
(Daniel M. Fox and Diane R. Karp, Images of Plague: Infectious Disease in the Visual Arts)

-- Go to this site created by the London Science Museum and click on the map half-way down the page to chart how the disease spread through the neighborhood

-- More of my photos of the intersection at Broad and Lexington and the John Snow pub

-- More on Dr. John Snow.

Soho and the Charles Dickens Walking Tour

Today we're on our way to check out the former site of the infamous, cholera-spreading Broad Street pump in Soho, and from there it is on to another walking tour given by Jean from The Original London Walks. This tour will focus solely on Dickens, and I heard that she does it in costume! It should be a thrilling, and very warm and sticky, last day in London.

Although it is a very sad story, I am very much looking forward to seeing the area of town that was involved in the cholera outbreak in 1854: Soho. From what I've read in Steven Johnson's book on the outbreak, it has been an interesting part of town for centuries. In the late 1600's and early 1700's it was a fashionable or trendy place to live. In the 1690's, almost 100 families lived there. The Prince and Princess of Wales had a house there in 1717. Many of the townhouses on its streets were elegant, but by the mid 1700's it began to change. The richer families and noble classes moved further west, out of the bustle of the city where they could build even larger houses on bigger pieces of property. As the richer people moved out, the neighborhood became grittier and more industrial. Artists and craftsmen and working-class people moved in. A new kind of Soho began to appear. It was busy and bustling and larger houses were subdivided into small apartments. Some formerly lovely courtyards turned into junkyards. Charles Dickens described it quite well in Nicholas Nickleby:

In that quarter of town...there is bygone, faded, tumble-down street, with two irregular rows of tall meagre houses, which seem to have stared each other out of countenance years ago. The very chimneys appear to have grown dismal and melancholy from having had nothing better to look at than the chimneys over the way...To judge from the size of the houses, they have been , at one time,tenanted by persons of better condition than their present occupants; but they are now let off, by the week, in floors or rooms, and every door has almost as many (name) plates or bell handles as there are apartments within.

By the 1800's Soho was, like the other over-crowded parts of the city, having problems with sanitation, or the disposal of sewage and waste. London had become a large city in the previous century, but the population kept increasing, rapidly. (In 1800 about 1 million people lived there, but in 1851, 2.4 million people lived there, making it the most populous city on the planet, and more densely populated than New York City is today! By the end of the century, or 1900, 6 million people lived in London. Imagine if within your school career at USM, Milwaukee's population almost doubled!) More and more people moved there and more and more babies were born there, but there were not yet systems in place for taking away all the garbage these people were creating. Most of the techniques for managing that mess that we are now used to - recycling centers, hospitals and clinics, safe sewer systems and garbage trucks and standard garbage cans and systems for pick-up -- none of that had been invented yet.

Imagine if your family shared your house with two or three other families and did not have running water inside your house, or a flushing toilet or garbage collectors to come and take away your refuse each week. Where would you put all of those half-eaten pieces of pizza, and banana peels, and moldy yogurt, and old newspapers, and empty milk containers? Where would you go to the bathroom? How would you clean your body? And most disgustingly, where would your human waste go?

What happened in London was an unplanned, unorganized response: the job of a scavenger was created. People who didn't have any other better way of making money collected and sorted and re-used or recycled all the garbage that Victorian Londoners produced. Steven Johnson explains it simply in his book The Ghost Map, "as the garbage and excrement (human waste) grew, an underground market for refuse developed." These things were then sold to established trades who could use them. He continues:

Specialists emerged, each dutifully carting goods to the appropriate site in the official market: the bone collectors selling their goods to the bone-boilers, the the pure-finders selling their dog (poop) to tanners, who used the "pure" to rid their leather goods of the lime they soaked it in to remove the animal hair...without any education at all, this underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people.


But even with these scavengers removing and recycling most of the waste, it wasn't enough. Most experts say that even with today's infrastructure and plans and organizations, with all the current systems we have in place to take care of our garbage, the kind of growth that happened in London during this period would be difficult to manage. In other words, even if they had all the conveniences that we have today, there would have been major problems. "without infrastructure, (over) two million people suddenly forced to share ninety square miles of space wasn't just a disaster waiting to happen -- it was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat," explains Johnson. And that disaster was the disease known as CHOLERA.

Listen to a description of life by the River Thames, the heart of the city during the Victorian era given by Jean Haynes, an official City of London guide.

Read the post above this one to hear more about one of the most famous cholera outbreaks in history.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Westminster Abbey


This morning, after the fog lifted, I headed to the extremely famous and lavishly decorated Westminster Abbey, where the monarch of England has been crowned for generations, to see the spot where Dickens was buried. Along the way I got a close-up view of Big Ben and the London Eye. His remains were placed in the floor of the abbey in poet's corner, along with other English greats like Tennyson and Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling. I have heard that he did not want to be buried there, but am not quite sure why. For someone who courted fame as much as he did, it seems odd that he would not want to be memorialized in such an honored place. I'll have to do some digging to find out more about that. Next to his burial spot are memorials to tons of other famous English writers and artists including: C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, William Blake, John Keats and more.


Post-script: After reading further in the highly acclaimed biography Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, I found the following quote from Dickens regarding his burial:

"I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner...that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity...I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works..."

Also, Dickens had also once said, "the more truly great the man, the more truly little the ceremony."

videoHowever, his adoring fans, which included most of the country and people from every class, wanted more of a ceremony, so a compromise was reached: he was buried in Westminster Abbey, but with a plain marker and a completely private ceremony. According to Ackroyd, "his grave at Westminster Abbey was left open for two days. At the end of the first day, there were still one thousand people outside waiting to pay their respects."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Charles Dickens Museum

This morning I headed out to the Charles Dickens Museum, formerly known as the Dickens House Museum, due to its location in the house that Dickens lived in from 1837 to 1839. It is located at 48 Doughty Street, in the Camden Town section of London, and it is the only surviving house of his within London. I spent hours walking around, speaking with the docents and director and looking through their extensive archives. Among the library in the basement were first editions of all his works. I was able to page through all of them as well as look at folder after folder of illustrations, photos and articles about him, his family, his writing and his life. The image at the right is of the frontispiece of the first edition of A Christmas Carol. It was a fascinating day!
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What struck me first was its relatively small size. In the early to mid 1800's this was definitely an upper middle-class street. Doughty Street was a private road with a gateway and a porter situated at each end of it in 1837. And indeed, according to Mary, the curator who spoke with me, it was the nicest house that anyone in the Dickens family had ever occupied and it was larger than any other house Dickens lived in before. It has twelve rooms on four floors. To Charles and his wife and their small children, the move here was a definite move up. In his biography by Peter Ackroyd he is quoted as saying that it was a "frightfully first-class Family Mansion..."

Right before moving to 48 Doughty Street, Charles and his wife and his younger brother Alfred lived in a three-room apartment in the central part of London. And, compared to the houses and apartments of his childhood, especially the small attic rooms and the debtors prison where his family lived for a time, this house was extremely grand and showed that things were improving for Charles economically, but to many modern day visitors it would seem a little small, especially since Charles and his wife Catherine moved here with their baby son and Charles's brother Alfred and then hired a cook, a housemaid, a nurse and later, a butler.

Charles and Catherine eventually had 10 children. Two of their daughters, Mary and Kate, were born in this house. Charles also finished his first novel, The Pickwick Papers shortly after moving here and then wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in the study, the room at the back of the house that overlooks the garden.

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A few of the rooms are set up to look as they did when the Dickens family lived here and other rooms include memorabilia and artifacts and exhibits. Photography came in to practice during his lifetime so there are a few photos of Charles later in life, as well as photos of how the dining room looked when he and his family occupied the house. Along with photos, there are good number of paintings of the family. The portrait of Charles below and at the right was painted by his close friend, Daniel Maclise, in 1839, the year he moved out of 48 Doughty Street.

There is a lovely garden out back with flowers and a fountain; however, Mary, who was watering these flowers when I arrived, said that it was most likely just a dusty yard with a ragged rose bush in it in 1837.

Charles Dickens is known to have loved bright colors and light and so added some personal touches to the house when he moved in. According to his biography by Ackroyd:

"the woodwork was painted pink, a veined marble hearth was brought in, a complete set of 'standard novels' was purchased to furnish his study, and bright flowered carpets introduced. (Since he seems to have had a nervous terror of fire, one of his first moves was to insure everything with the Sun Fire Office.)..He loved elegance but just as importantly he loved brightness; that is why he installed mirrors in whichever house he occupied. An era in which candles and oil lamps provided interior lighting was surely one in which the use of mirrors to reflect light was of paramount importance, although some unkind critics have suggested that Dickens's love of mirrors was based on vanity as much as anything else."

Also, it is said that Dickens loved to have his friends over for dinner when he lived in this house. It was during the years that he was here that he really gained fame, and it was most likely the first house of his that was large enough to accommodate a small party of people.

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From all written accounts, it sounds as if the years spent in this house were mainly happy ones. Charles and his wife moved in here with a new baby and then had two more children while in the house. His fame was constantly increasing and he was earning enough money to be comfortable. Along with the frequent dinner parties, Charles's brother Alfred still lived with them, and Catherine's sister Mary stayed with them regularly. Charles was known for enjoying having extended family and friends around him whenever possible.

However, it was at this address that a very tragic event occurred. In 1838, while staying with Charles and Catherine, Catherine's sister Mary, who was 17 years old at the time, collapsed in the upstairs bedroom. The family had just come home from the theatre and she was most likely getting ready for bed. The doctor was called immediately, and came over soon after, but nothing could be done. By the next evening she had died of heart failure. The family was distraught, and some say Charles never really got over her death. In his eyes, Mary was so full of life and kindness and happiness. She was the embodiment of everything wonderful about life. He described her as "young, beautiful, and good" and is said to have modeled all his idealized young female characters after her.
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By the next year, Catherine gave birth to their third child. They now had three children: Charley, Mary and Kate. The house that had seemed like a "mansion" when they moved in, was slowly getting very full, and that could be one of the reasons why Charles started looking for a new place to rent. By the end of 1839 the family was about to move out of 48 Doughty Street.

Below are some images of a pub just a few blocks away from the house. According to the people at the museum and prof. Ledger, Dickens most definitely visited it regularly. It is called The Lamb and was built in the 1720's but updated in Victorian times. Today it is still a good example of a Victorian pub. A polyphon, or Victorian jukebox, still stands in one of the back corners.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Meeting with Professor Sally Ledger of Birkbeck College

Today I had the privilege of chatting with Sally Ledger, Professor of 19th Century Literature at Birkbeck College of the University of London. We sat at an outdoor cafe just outside the main entrance to the British Library and she gave me her thoughts on all things Dickens. I asked her about his legacy, his popularity in the Victorian era, the language he uses, his style and why we should still read his works. She was extremely insightful, kind, and easy to talk to, AND, as the mother of a teenage son, had some great advice on teens and 160 year old language.

--Click to hear Sally's thoughts on his writing style and the challenges it presents to modern-day readers, especially young people

One of the most striking things she communicated was how beloved Dickens's stories were during the Victorian era. I had heard about his great fame many times, but she explained that, with the exception of a very few members of the elite intelligentsia who looked as his writing as a bit overly dramatic and what we might call "sappy" or "cheezy", people from every part of the country and indeed all rungs of society devoured everything of his that was published.

In his book The English Novel Walter Allen describes Dickens as the "great novelist who was also the great entertainer, the greatest entertainer, probably, in the history of fiction." His incredible knack for describing scenes and objects and people specifically and realistically grabbed his readers' attention immediately and his ability to keep them interested by adding action, love, sadness, brutality and humor was unmatched by other writers of the time. His daughter Katey, who used to sit in his study while he was writing, is said to have watched him in the mirror, making faces and delivering dialogue in order to see what it looked like acted out before he put it down in words.

The extremely poor and the lavishly wealthy were addicted to his stories and because most of them were released in small portions or serials, over a series of weeks, much like television shows are today, his readers waited hungrily for each installment. Sally compared his stories to the show the EastEnders on the BBC, the longest running soap opera in the United Kingdom. It is watched by millions of people in England, but also by people all around the world. The increase in literacy during the Industrial Revolution brought his words to many more readers than in previous generations. Also due to his own family's struggle with poverty, his books featured working-class, poor characters. Therefore the working class people of England loved him and his books just as much as the more educated people did. And because his stories were so full of drama and entertainment, they were often acted out on stage, giving illiterate audiences a chance to hear his words as well.

--Hear Sally's answer to my question about his popularity

She also said that perhaps Dickens could be called the J.K. Rowling of his time, because of his intense popularity and the subject matter of his books. Like Ms. Rowling, Dickens wrote stories that deal with the battle between good and evil; like Harry, there was often an orphan at the center of his tales; he used wildly descriptive language and got the reader to root for the good guy and intensely hate the bad guy. And, like Ms. Rowling, he gained fame throughout the English speaking world, especially in the United States.

-- Listen to Sally's thoughts on Dickens and Rowling

--Listen to Sally's thoughts on the legacy of Dickens

Monday, July 21, 2008

Darkest Victorian London

On Monday morning, after breakfast, we walked to the London Bridge and crossed over into the Southwark (pronounced "Suth-ick") neighborhood on the South side of the River Thames (pronounced "Tems") to see where Charles Dickens lived as a boy with his family. Many of the streets in the immediate area now have names based on his life and his works: Copperfield, Marshelsea, Quilp, Doyce, etc. From there we saw a pub that he frequented later in life and where he lodged when his father was imprisoned in debtors' prison and his mother and four younger siblings went with him.

According to biographies, when Charles was living on Lant Street, renting an attic room and working in the blacking factory or boot polish factory, he was so ashamed of how wretchedly poor he was and how sorry his neighborhood was, that he was known to have lied about his address to another boy who worked with him.

Robert Fagin, for whom he later named the notorious villain in Oliver Twist, was asked to walk Charles home from the factory one day when he "took ill". As they walked across the river and the neighborhoods became sorrier and sorrier, Charles concocted a scheme. He walked up the steps at a grand house and told Robert that he lived there and that Robert didn't need to wait; he was home and would be fine. Robert is said to have been incredulous.

What would a boy from such a lovely, lavish home be doing working in a blacking factory? So he said, "No, I'll wait 'til you're in." Charles had to knock on the door to convince him, and Robert was satisfied and walked back to work. When a maid opened the door, Charles supposedly said, "Oh, parodon me, but is Mr. Robert Fagin at home?"

Of course the maid didn't know anyone of that name and said so. Charles apologized and smiled and went on his way, deciding later to memorialize Robert Fagin in writing.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Whitechapel, Spitalfields and the Whitechapel Murders

At 7:30 PM on Sunday night we went on a walking tour given by the London Walks company called "Jack the Ripper's 'haunts". It was thoroughly gruesome and fascinating and our guide, Daniel, was entertaining and knowledgeable. We got to see parts of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods, or quarters, in the East End of London, that, in the Victorian era and even after, were infamous for their extreme poverty and harsh living conditions.

If you click on the names of the neighborhoods or quarters in the above paragraph, you'll see where they are located in Victorian era London. They lie on the easternmost, or right, edge of the map.

They were made incredibly infamous however, when in the late summer and early fall of 1888, they became known because of the grisly murders of five (some theorists say up to eight, but the most reliable experts say it was five) women who lived in the area.

Many former USM seventh graders have also been intrigued by the story and have chosen to cover it in their Victorian era research projects. As they will tell you, the "Whitechapel Murders" are the most well known criminal cases in history because of the horrid brutality involved, because they are believed to be committed by one person, making them one of the first serial killers to be written about, but also because the crime was never solved. Even today, there is no real consensus on who did it.

On the tour we heard all the various theories about who the murderer really was, many of which have been debunked. We also learned a bit about the lives of the victims and saw the sites where the bodies were discovered.

Another thing that makes the murders so morbidly fascinating to many people is the fact that the five victims were all extremely poor, most likely had drinking problems, and had been known to be prostitutes. To me, and to many writers from the Victorian age, these problems epitomize the extremely difficult and troublesome lifestyles that vast numbers of Londoners had during this time in history. Life was horrid for many people in the mid-to-late 1800's. Huge numbers of people lived in poverty, poverty that we can barely imagine; disease was wide-spread; jobs were literally back-breaking; and wages were low. Indeed, unlike today, when the average American born in 2005 can expect to live to 77 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, in the 1850's, the average working-class man's life expectancy was only 16 years old!

When faced with such turmoil, strife and hardship, people often turn to things that they might otherwise never fathom, such as drugs, alcohol and illegal acts, doing things that they know to be wrong or immoral in order to earn money, survive or cope. Unfortunately those things can include stealing or prostituting themselves. Some use drugs or alcohol to temporarily escape such a miserable existence.

In the 1800's, London was rife with, or full of, bars known as "gin palaces" or "gin houses". These establishments served beer and alcohol, but most people came to them to drink a liquor called gin. Unlike modern-day gin, it was three times more powerful and much cheaper. A few cents could buy you a large glass; as a result, thousands of people suffered from alcohol-related diseases which damaged their kidneys and livers. Some investigators believe that it was at one of these gin houses, The Ten Bells, which still stands today, where the murderer is said to have found some of his victims.

Click here to see the photos I took on the tour. Below you'll see Andrew, our guide, explaining the very poor living conditions of the people of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields neighborhoods in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper struck.
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According to Andrew, Jack the Ripper got his name when a journalist wrote a phony letter to the police claiming to have committed the murders and signed his name "Jack the Ripper". The name stuck because of its gory nature - people like gore, but also because the victims all had their throats slit or "ripped". Others claimed that the murderer had to have been a doctor or surgeon because the dead women had been cut open and had organs removed.

As of last spring, the actual casebook, or real-life files of the investigators who were assigned to these murders, was released to the public. Read what The British newspaper The Guardian reported about the casebook release.

Learn more about the unsolved case, the mysterious letters sent to police, and theories regarding the murderer's real identity by checking out the Jack the Ripper exhibit at the Museum in Docklands in London.

The City

Sunday, July 20, 2008
My first morning in England:


After a full English breakfast that Charles Dickens would have most definitely loved: "bangers" or pork sausages, stewed tomatoes, baked beans, toast with marmalade and a fried egg, we headed to the Underground or "tube" for the 45 minute ride from the airport into Central London. Note: Mr. Reimer was adventurous enough to try the crispy black pudding or blood sausage, but I smartly declined it.

We found our hotel between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus without too much trouble and checked in. It is lovely and charming and brilliant or some such British-sounding phrase!

After being here only a short while, two things are immediately apparent: this is a VERY densely populated city and its populous is extremely diverse. It was striking how many languages we heard in just a few hours, traveling from the airport to our first hotel and then into central London. I've been in many big cities throughout the world and the only other place that even comes close to having this much diversity is Manhattan. No doubt it was much this way in the 1800's when the Industrial Revolution was driving people from all over Europe into the cities, and so even though I am visiting 138 years after Charles Dickens died, I feel as though I am experiencing some of the things he must have experienced, or at least getting a feel for them. More facts about the population of London in the mid 1800's can be found at the London Census website.

To strengthen my point, let me quote from the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson: "By 1851 the subdistrict of Berwick Street on the west side of Soho (a neighborhood in central London) was the most densely populated of all 135 subdistricts that made up Greater London, with 432 people to the acre. (Even with its sky-scrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.) "

Although the central city, or downtown area, is much less populated now than it was in 1851, the tourists and business people make it seem jam-packed on most days! Walking anywhere is a bit of a challenge. Exiting a tube station is extremely difficult.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Getting there

My husband and I drove through torrential rain to arrive at O'Hare at 6:30 AM for a flight early in the morning. We flew from Chicago to London's Heathrow airport and experienced enough turbulence to keep my hands gripped tightly around each of my arm rests for the majority of the six and a half hours. In between my little fits of turbulence-induced terror, I finished reading a few fantastic books about the Victorian era and its struggles with public sanitation and disease. My favorite was called The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, and I'll tell you much more about it later in the blog. On the plane I read line after disgusting line about cesspools, and dirty gutters, and bedpans being emptied into alleyways out loud to my husband. He was most likely a little annoyed but humored me :).

We landed late at night, 22:40 European time, and took a bus to a hotel near the airport for one night's stay. In the morning we'd head into Central London by way of the London Underground.

The long escalators leading into the Underground fascinated me all week. You can see one below.
video

Friday, July 18, 2008

Almost packed

I've got the passport, way too many books, lots of shoes, a rain jacket and my official Dickens Fellowship membership card and pin packed, and I think I am about set. Tomorrow evening I should be landing in Heathrow and jumping on the "tube". It is difficult to believe that it is time to go.

I am eager to add photos and video and tons of interesting tidbits to this blog as I delve deeper and deeper into what remains of Victorian London. With that said, I am extremely thankful I won't actually be experiencing many of the sights and smells of London circa 1850:

If a late twentieth-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period, he would be literally sick - sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him, (Peter Ackroyd in his biography Dickens).

And according to writer and Dickens expert David Perdue:

The homes of the upper and middle class exist(ed) in close proximity to areas of unbelievable poverty and filth. Rich and poor alike are thrown together in the crowded city streets. Street sweepers attempt to keep the streets clean of manure, the result of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles. The city's thousands of chimney pots are belching coal smoke, resulting in soot which seems to settle everywhere. In many parts of the city raw sewage flows in gutters that empty into the Thames. Street vendors hawking their wares add to the cacophony of street noises.