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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Dickens and London

For a real insight into what London was like in Victorian times, check out the Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London. Charles Dickens called the city his ‘magic lantern’ and it became a constant thread running through his novels. (left, Charles Dickens in his study, 1859, William Powell Frith © Victoria and Albert Museum)

“Implacable November weather,” he writes at the beginning of Bleak House. “As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth … Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun..……

This exhibition puts the author’s words alongside historic paintings and artefacts to create a picture of the sprawling metropolis he knew (left, © Museum of London). 

Objects range from a watchman’s box from Furnival’s Inn, one of the old Inns of Court where he had chambers as a young man, to a heavy metal door from Newgate Prison. There are more personal treasures as well – the author’s writing desk and chair, the velvet-covered lectern he used when giving readings, an original manuscript that gives an insight into his working methods, his bank ledger and a collection of boot blacking pots of the kind he stuck labels on as a child to earn money while his father was in Marshalsea Prison for debt.

Dickens’ London was developing rapidly into a modern city with steam boats, railways, the electric telegraph and the penny post, reflected in the exhibition’s paintings and displays. The author was fascinated by all these, but also aware of its dark side – the poverty, prostitution and childhood mortality, which he included in his writing, hoping to raise public awareness. The exhibition includes a Doré etching of an opium den, mentioned in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (Dickens himself took laudanum, a tincture of opium, to reduce pain and help him sleep.)
But perhaps the most chilling is a painting, Applicants For Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874 (above, © Royal Holloway, University of London). It shows people queuing to enter the workhouse – a place of last resort. In The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens wrote of the appalling state of one such institution in Wapping, but even as a child, lived in their shadow. One of his childhood homes was in Norfolk St (now Cleveland St, not far from the Telecom Tower), just a few doors from a forbidding brick building which he knew as a workhouse. Throughout his life he worked unceasingly, haunted by the fear of falling back into the poverty he had known in his childhood, eventually driving himself into an early grave. The exhibition ends with a specially commisioned film, The Houseless Shadow, by William Raban. It uses Dickens’ description of a walk through the Victorian city after dark to illustrate images of today’s London. The problems he knew are still with us, 150 years on.

Dickens and London is part of an international celebration to mark the bicenenary of his birth. It runs until June 10 2012. A book accompanies the exhibition: Dickens’ Victorian London, by Alex Warner.

Another book, Dickens and the Workhouse, by Ruth Richardson, comes out in February.

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