In the novels, stories and articles by Charles Dickens, London often assumed the role of character all on its own. Its streets and buildings, its neighborhoods and squares, its slums and courts and prisons, and, most of all, its people were both a giant canvas on which he drew his works and a well of inspiration.
Dickens knew London in person. He walked its streets; in fact, he was rather famous for walking its streets, thinking nothing of a good 25- or 30-mile hike (he was also reported to be a fast walker).
Daniel Tyler, a lecturer at the University of Oxford, has published several books related to Dickens, including Dickens’s Style (2013), and he recently edited The Uncommercial Traveller, published this past October by Oxford University Press. The Uncommercial Traveler has numerous references to London, and Tyler put some of that research to good use in a volume entitled A Guide to Dickens’ London.
This isn’t a guide to a walking tour, like Lee Jackson’s Walking Dickens’ London or the “Magic Lantern” brochure you can obtain at the Tourist Information Centre across from St. Paul’s Cathedral that helps you find key locations in Dickens’ life and writings. Instead, A Guide to Dickens’ London is the book you should read before you do a walking tour, because it connects in detail various neighborhoods, buildings, locales, streets and even the bridges across the Thames to Dickens’ works, and especially the novels.
Tyler walks the reader through the areas that contained the slums, the affluent areas (most of which are still affluent), the coach houses and hotels, the homes, the precincts of the law around the Temple, the river and bridges, the prisons and the churches that provided Dickens with the background and often the foreground for a considerable portion of the action in his novels. Here was a key scene in Bleak House and one in Little Dorrit; there was where Pip walked and was embarrassed to see Estella riding by. And over there is the prison Pip visited in Great Expectations.
It’s a relatively slender volume of 152 pages (including the index) but there is considerable research packed into it. A Guide to Dickens’ London is a highly readable text, telling both the story of one of the greatest novelists and the city he loved, even as he railed against its squalor and injustice.
Illustration: Leadenhall Street in London in Dickens’ times, via Wikimedia Commons.