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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1 comment:

joshua said...

why did you put this little 8 second clip on the blog?