Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Literary London: A Visit to the Charles Dickens House




Throughout his all-too-brief life, Charles Dickens was constantly on the move. By any measure, his list of residences is astounding. Perhaps he inherited this restless spirit from his father, who moved from pillar to post, usually one step ahead of the creditors. Sadly, most of Dickens's homes no longer exist, their presence--or rather absence--marked by a sign or commemorative plaque saying Charles Dickens once lived here 


But that’s okay--a great city such as London is like the Phoenix, constantly recreating itself in the ashes of its own destruction. And anyway Dickens's London still exists in the pages of his  books. Still,there is a remaining jewel: In 1837, Charles Dickens, his wife Catherine, and her seventeen-year-old sister Mary Hogarth moved to 48 Doughty Street. Dickens was delighted with his new house, that befitted his position as a young novelist on the rise:


"It was a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door...and a small private garden in the rear."
Is Mr. Dickens at home?
This beautifully restored house is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum and a must-see for any lover of Dickens.When my husband and I visited, we were lucky enough to catch the costumed tour. Here's the set-up: It is 1839. Mr. Dickens and his family aren't at home, but the chatty housemaid invites us inside for a look around. I rather suspected the young flibbertigibbet was in her cups, but who can blame her? It was a chill April morning and I'd have gladly joined her in a bowl of Smoking Bishop, if she'd offered.
Welcome!



Mr. Dickens's Study

During his three-year sojourn at Doughty Street, Dickens first experienced commercial and critical success, with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. When our hostess led us into the study where he had penned these three early novels, I was momentarily struck dumb. This was where Oliver Twist drew his first breath and Nancy her last, Sensing my interest, our hostess took me aside for a private word.

"I daresay when I first entered Mr. Dickens's employ. I thought the master was mad as hops! I'd be passing on the stairs and hear him in his study talkin' and yellin' to himself in all different kind of voices. I would have sworn to the Beadle he weren't alone, though I knew the truth of it, I did." The good woman laughed and lowered her voice. "Why, once I peeked in and he were  winkin' and twitchin' at himself in the mirror, like one of them crazed folk at Bedlam!"

"He was happy here," I said and a shadow passed over the kind woman's face. "Wasn't he?"
The room where young Mary died

"You've read his books, so you know how it was--how it is. Life is always mixed up, not all one or the other. Come, let me take you to her room."

"Mary's room?" I whispered and our hostess nodded.

One night in 1837, Dickens's beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth fell ill.She died the next day, in Mr. Dickens's arms. Distraught, Dickens removed a ring that he had given Mary and slipped it on his own finger, where it remained for the rest of his days. Inconsolable after the loss of "so perfect a creature," he was unable--for the first and last time in his professional life--to put pen to paper. While all of London watched in trepidation, time and deadlines passed, with no new installments of The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist.

Of course, Dickens picked up his pen again, but he never really recovered from the tragedy--Mary's untimely death haunted his life and his fiction.  In The Old Curiosity Shop Little Nell, whose ultimate fate obsessed two continents, was the most direct representation of young Mary. Dickens was loath to let Little Nell die, but his good friend John Forster convinced him that Nell must die, arguing that an angel such as she deserved better than a conventionally happy ending.  In writing Nell's death, Dickens lamented that he felt as if he'd lost Mary all over again.

In David Copperfield, Dickens's most autobiographical novel, Mary shares a somewhat happier fate when she is resurrected in the character of Agnes. And there were so many others: as Dickens's ideal woman, Mary Hogarth was a wellspring of inspiration. It might seem hard, but that's what writers do--they mine their own lives and the lives of of the people around them to create art.

After leaving Mary's room, we followed our hostess to the dining room, where I was cheered to
find the dining table set for guests. But then, Dickens always loved company--he was an actor on the stage of life, playing his role to the hilt.

As our time at Doughty Street drew to a close, I thought that this little house was not unlike one of Mr. Dickens's books. His novels brimmed with life,but death was a constant presence, the uninvited guest at life's banquet. Though he recognized the evil that men do, he affirmed--again and again--the power of the human heart. Though a frail organ, Dickens believed that there was no darkness so profound that it could not be illuminated by a loving human heart.

I'd like to believe he was right. Wouldn't you?

Then it was time to leave 1837 and the cozy house on Doughty Street. In farewell, our hostess quoted these words form the conclusion of The Pickwick Papers, when our narrator bids a final goodbye to that goodhearted fool, Mr.Pickwick.

Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.

Well said, Mr. Dickens.



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4 comments:

Rita said...

Thank you for the photos. They are great! I never made it to his home. There is only so much you can do in a visit and it seemed to keep going on the next trip list. Still think we need to plan a group trip.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Thank you for the virtual tour! What a great time, and to be surrounded by all of that history... It sounds like such a creative boost. Love the quote, too.

And I'm with Rita - a group trip sounds fabulous! I've never been to London.

Clare London said...

What a lovely visit, thanks for sharing it with us! I worked in London and we went to the house last year on a day out :)

jean harrington said...

Oh Daryl, this was a beautiful post. Thank you so much for the virtual tour. Can I confess that when I first started reading Dickens I though Great Expectations was about a pregnant waif. Who else wants to 'fess up?