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