Dickensian London: A character in itself

Dickens wrote so evocatively of the city's sites - many of which can still be found.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

London is as much a character in Charles Dickens's novels as Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield is. To Dickens, London was a living, breathing entity for which he had an enduring fascination. He loved its diversity yet hated its inequalities, and his descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city are among the most evocative passages in English literature.

Despite urban renewal and the German blitz of World War II, much of Dickens's London survives in alleyways and narrow streets away from the usual tourist trail.

Life in Dickensian London centered on the old walled City that covers a mere square mile and is dominated by St. Paul's Cathedral. In "Great Expectations," Pip described the adjacent street market of Cheapside as "all asmear with filth and fat and blood ... the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me."

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Toward the west lies Saffron Hill, the haunt of Fagin in "Oliver Twist," and Snow Hill, where, in "Nicholas Nickleby," Wackford Squeers advertised for pupils at the Saracen's Head.

Pip alighted from the coach at the Cross Keys Inn just off Cheapside, which is still the perfect place to begin a tour of Dickens's London. All that remains of the inn is a paved area in the adjacent churchyard that belonged to St. Peter Cheap in Wood Street. The churchyard railings have inset crossed keys with a large glass lantern above to light the way of incoming passengers. Dickens was one, arriving alone from Kent at age 12. His spendthrift father, John, spent various periods imprisoned for debt, including a time at the Wood Street Compter, which is farther down the road. A narrow passage leads into Mitre Court, the site of the old prison, and dark steps descend into a warren of dungeons beneath the courtyard.

In "Little Britain," Pip turned left from Wood Street, along London Wall to the offices of his lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. Here, buildings still jostle for space and lean across the narrow street like the trees in the adjacent Postman's Park. Dickens, however, crossed the river into Southwark, the less reputable area that was to haunt him throughout his life and color his novels.

His family languished in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison, later described with passionate loathing in "Little Dorrit." A portion of the prison wall still stands in St. George's churchyard off Borough High Street, but the rest of the building has crumbled. A picture of Amy Dorrit is visible in the stained glass window of St. George's, the church in which she was married and christened. Surrounding streets read like a cast list from a Dickens novel with names like Quilp, Copperfield, and Pickwick.

The Borough was once a busy coaching stop, and in "Pickwick Papers," Dickens describes the inns as "rambling queer old places ... with galleries and passages." The George Inn just off Borough High Street has survived. It appears quaint next to its modern neighbors, but it was once a noisy, smelly, busy stopover on arduous journeys.

Dickens lived alone on nearby Lant Street during his family's imprisonment, the landlord later immortalized as kindly Mr. Garland in "The Old Curiosity Shop." From here, he daily crossed the Thames on Blackfriars Bridge and walked two miles to work at Warren's Blacking Factory just off the Strand near Hungerford Bridge. Charing Cross Station now stands on the factory site, but Dickens drew heavily on the landscape of this walk in his novels, much of it still recognizable today.

His route took him through the heart of the legal district around Inner and Middle Temple and the Law Courts in the Strand. Just behind the courts, at the top of Chancery Lane, is Lincoln's Inn Fields, described in "Bleak House" as "the perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law."

Dickens used words like dull, dingy, and dusky when describing the square, but today it is a pleasant place to stroll. Black-clad lawyers carrying bundles of papers tied with pink string still walk briskly on their way to court.

These streets were home to Miss Flite, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and Mr. Guppy, as well as to Dickens himself during his time as a lawyer's clerk. He drew many of his later characters from observation of his firm's clients, and the settings so perfectly sketched were places he encountered daily. One is the store at 13-14 Portsmouth Street, a building dating from 1567 and said to be the inspiration for "The Old Curiosity Shop."

Across the Strand from the courts, at the bottom of Middle Temple Lane, are more lawyers' chambers in the narrow alleys and paved courtyards of the Temple, an area that received kinder literary treatment than Lincoln's Inn. In "Barnaby Rudge," Dickens spoke fondly of its drowsy, dreamy atmosphere.

Many of its tall, gracious buildings date from the 17th century and are grouped around quiet courtyards or well-kept gardens. This slice of history is so perfectly preserved it would be no surprise to catch Pip hurrying to his lodgings up the long run of King's Bench Walk in the glow of gas lanterns still lighted every evening.

In the other direction, toward Charing Cross, stands Somerset House, formerly the Navy Pay Office where John Dickens worked. St. Mary-le-Strandsits precariously in the middle of the busy road, a pretty confection of a church where Dickens's parents married.

Running down the side of Somerset House is Strand Lane, now accessible only from Surrey Street. The steep old walkway follows the bed of a stream that supplies water to the Roman bath mentioned in "David Copperfield." David (and Dickens) regularly plunged into the icy waters before their morning walk and, although it is no longer in use, it is still visible behind railings.

Farther west along the Strand is the theater district between Drury Lane and Shaftesbury Avenue, an area beloved by Dickens, who always claimed he had a greater talent for drama than for literature. Many Victorian theaters survive, including the Adelphi, where young Dickens became a frequent visitor.

To end a tour of Dickens's London it's worth visiting the Dickens' House Museum at 48 Doughty Street. Dickens's rising fame and the proceeds from "Pickwick Papers" allowed him to rent the elegant town house in 1837. Later he wrote "Oliver Twist" and "Nicholas Nickleby" here. The manuscripts and collection of artifacts from every stage of his life help put his novels into context. You will find a window from his childhood home in Kent, the place he was probably happiest. There's also a grille from the dreaded Marshalsea to remind us of the poverty he endured and described so poignantly in "David Copperfield."

In stark contrast, his study and drawing room are re-created in all their Victorian splendor as proof that his genius carried him far above his humble beginnings.

Although Dickens earned fame and fortune through his writing, his early experiences marked him for life. His novels were social commentary, giving voice to the poor and dispossessed against the magnificent backdrop of old Londontown, where the "ghosts" of Oliver Twist, Miss Flite, and Jo the crossing-sweeper still linger in its alleyways.

For more information:

David Perdue's website has information about Dickens's life and work and lists many more sites around London connected to him. It also includes a map of both biographical and fictional sites: www.fidnet.com/ ~dap1955/dickens

The Dickens' House Museum website may be found at www.dickensmuseum.com.

For an informative walking tour of Dickens's London, see www.walks.com.

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