When we visited London in 2012, I was looking forward to seeing the Charles Dickens House on Doughty Street, where the writer lived with his family for about three years in the late 1830s. This was the 200th anniversary of his birth; Simon Callow was playing him in the one-man play “The Mystery of Charles Dickens” (written for Callow by the noted writer and Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd); and I knew a lot more about Dickens and the London of Dickens’ era than when we first visited in 1983.
The only problem was the Charles Dickens House was closed for reconstruction. On his bicentennial birth year. Go figure.
So when we went back this year, I was determined to see it. I had checked and knew it was open. Since my wife was less interested in seeing it, she chose to have a leisurely morning, and off I went, via three tube lines. Surfacing at the Russell Square station (same one you use for the British Museum), I walked the six blocks or so to Doughty Street, found the house, paid my admission fee, and stepped back in time 170 years.
It’s a narrow structure, four floors and a basement, with narrow stairs. The self-guided tour is well done, and I could stare in wonder at the parlor when the Dickens family entertained, the study, the bedrooms, even the bathroom. The kitchen is in the basement. The house had been furnished with period furniture, including some furniture from the final home of Dickens, at Gad’s Hill in Kent.
And the house included a small shop; the English are good at small but outstanding. I could have spent house looking over the books, biographies, book markers, and busts of the writer. As it was, I had to watch the clock; we had plans for later in the morning.
One of books in the shop was a small volume, The Genius of Dickens by Michael Slater. Slater is a well-regarded biographer of Dickens, having not only written an official biography but also several smaller studies, including one on Dickens’ love affair with actress Ellen Ternan.
In The Genius of Dickens, Slater considers the themes that dominate the novels and other writings: fancy (something akin to what we call imagination), innocence, responsibility and earnestness, progress, home, and faith. He uses all of the novels as primary research material, but has also drawn upon articles, letters, writings of contemporaries, and news and magazine reports.
Noting the author’s continuing appeal to readers today, Slater says, however, that “we should always bear in mind that in the first place he was a man of his own age.” Dickens was a Victorian at the age’s high-water mark, sting at the “top of the literary tree in the English-speaking world” (as Slater says) for thirty-five years – no small achievement. It is almost as if Dickens were the right writer for the right time, achieving notice and then fame as literacy was surging, the middle class was growing, and the Industrial Revolution was creating great (if unevenly distributed) wealth and leisure time. In many ways in his writings, Dickens became the conscience of his era
It’s a small volume, yes, but sitting behind it is an exhaustive amount of research. Originally published in 1999 as The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Dickens, it’s full of insight about the man and his work.
I purchased my copy, along with a small, easily packable bust, a bookmark, and a book of walking tours of Dickens’ London. Back outside, I walked in the overcast morning back to the tube station.
Illustration: Dickens Receiving His Characters by William Holbrook Beard (1824-1900), via Wikipedia.