Dickensian London: A character in itself
Dickens wrote so evocatively of the city's sites - many of which can still be found.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."