Known as perhaps the greatest author of the Victorian Age, Charles Dickens continues to be a household name. What high school graduate hasn’t read Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield? And who has never seen one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, ranging all the way from the staged version to the Muppets to the animated Disney version, featuring Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchet? No matter the story, Dickens’ characters vary from colorful, tragic, humorous and evil but they all have one thing in common: they are so well described by the great author that they may as well be real.
The Charles Dickens Museum in London, housed at 48 Doughty Street, is the only surviving London residence of the author. From 1837 to 1839 a young Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby within the walls of this house. It is where two of his daughters were born and where his beloved sister-in-law, Mary, met her tragic end. Now, more than a century and a half later, the Georgian house on Doughty Street is open to the public and serves as London’s only Dickens museum.
Visitors are kindly directed around the house by volunteers stationed on each floor and are handed pamphlets with information about each room. The first stop is the entryway where letters in the author’s hand are displayed (along with his dry humor, if you take the time to read through a couple) as well as memorabilia and Dickens artifacts. Next stop is the dining room where the table is set with flatware depicting a collection of notable authors. One gets the feeling that these great holders of the quill haunt this table after the museum has closed, discussing literature, politics and the times.
The basement level of the house was, of course, reserved for the servants of the house. This is where meals were made, laundry was done and provisions were stored. According to the literature provided by the museum, Dickens would often come down to this level of the house to observe the servants and laborers, a demographic that served as an important cast of characters in his novels. Given the popularity of his work throughout the classes, ranging all the way from housemaids and servants to Queen Victoria herself, I can only imagine how thrilling it would be for Dickens’ house help to model this mode of life to their master. In some way, perhaps, they were immortalized in one or more of his finely crafted characters.
After exploration of the basement level is complete, visitors are guided to the second story of the house. At the top of the stairs, visitors are greeted with a booming and animated voice reading Dickens’ work aloud. Meant to recreate the many instances when Dickens would read his own work aloud for the entertainment of visitors, a pastime that is described in the museum pamphlet, the bravado of excerpts fromOliver Twist and Pickwick Papers transport visitors to the great writer’s own day as they enter his study and office.
Not all of the furniture in the house is native to Doughty Street, several pieces were brought from other homes that Dickens lived in throughout his life and career. An impressive collection of important pieces of furniture, especially pieces in Dickens’ office and study, are so indicated with descriptions as well as the original home of the relic.
Several of these notable pieces, such as Dickens’ brown leather armchair and desk can even be detected in various portraits of the writer displayed throughout the house. My favorite piece of furniture in the house is the great desk on which Dickens wrote two of my favorites: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. The writing surface of the desk is worn and well worked while the desk itself is an impressive piece of rich wood. Upon greater study, this desk is also included in many portraits of the great writer.
The third story of the Dickens home houses two bedrooms and a changing room. One bedroom belonged to Dickens and his wife, Catherine. This is also the room where two of their daughters were born. The other bedroom was that of Mary, Dickens’ sister-in-law. Dickens was very fond of Mary and when, at only 17, she died in his arms after a brief illness he was so grieved that he was unable to deliver installments of Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist on time.
The top floor of the home was both servants quarters and a nursery. Dickens’ familiarity with prison is apparent in his fictitious works but, like many elements from his novels, is also rooted in reality. His father was sent to debtors prison when Dickens was 12-years-old and his idyllic childhood came to an abrupt halt. Young Charles was forced to leave school and work at a factory during his fathers’ stint in prison, a visit that was only cut short by an unexpected inheritance being bestowed on him. (Sounds just like a Dickens novel, doesn’t it?) One of the rooms on the top floor of the museum discusses this relationship with prison as well as a bit about London at the time of Dickens’ residence.
Cross over at the top floor the the adjoining house, also a part of the museum, and be sure to peek in on the visiting exhibition on your way back down to the ground floor. At the end of your visit to the Charles Dickens Museum be sure to enjoy a beverage or light snack in the lovely garden cafe, located at the back of the house. Either bring your favorite Dickens novel along, purchase a new copy from the gift shop or simply chat with other museum goers about your favorite Dickens characters and stories. If the weather doesn’t allow for garden seating then take in the views from the comfort of the indoor seating provided by the cafe.
Plan your visit to the Charles Dickens Museum!
48 Doughty Street is located in the center of London and can be easily visited by public transport.
Accessible by bus numbers: 7, 17, 19, 38, 45, 46, 55, 243
Underground: Russell Square on the Piccadilly Line, Holborn or Chancery Lane on the Central Line, King’s Cross St. Pancras
Adults over 16 – £8.00; Children 6 to 16 – £6.00; Children under 6 are free.
Free admittance is granted to Art Fund Members.
Be sure to check the events calendar for upcoming events at the museum, ranging from regular reading groups to costumed tours to monthly candlelight viewings. There are also events available for children and families.