On Doughty Street, Dickens wrote for the world
FOR students of English literature, a visit to the Dickens House at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury ranks high on the list of places to see in London. The only one of the writer's 22 London residences to survive intact, this three-story, pink-brick terrace house is a treasure-trove of memorabilia, including his handwritten manuscripts, first editions in their original paper-wrapped installments, personal correspondence, pictures, family belongings, and furniture. Over 30,000 visitors each year sign their names in the guest book. They come from every country in Europe, from the United States, and such faraway places as Israel, India, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, and Nigeria.
A comfortable setting for an author
In the spring of 1837, the ambitious 25-year-old Charles Dickens signed a lease on the house where he would live three of the most important years of his life. Within its walls, he completed his ``Pickwick Papers'' and wrote his first two great novels, ``Oliver Twist'' and ``Nicholas Nickleby.''
For the young author, his wife, Kate, and newborn son, Charles, their move to Doughty Street was a step up in the world. It was an act of faith in his power and potential as a writer. The street was then a genteel, private enclave boasting a gatekeeper's lodge at each end, manned by a porter in a gold-trimmed, mulberry-colored livery.
The house consisted of 12 rooms plus an attic and a small garden at the rear. Family members also included Dickens's young brother, Fred, and Kate's sister, Mary Hogarth. Their servants were a cook, nurse, housemaid, and manservant. This comfortable domestic setting enabled Dickens to work long hours at his lonely craft and also to entertain his many friends.
Visitors to the Dickens House today enter a front hall whose walls are lined with a rare collection of watercolors of Dickens's leading characters. Here also is the large wooden clock about which Dickens wrote his memorable letter pointing out a botched cleaning job. ``After enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household.''
To the left of the hall is the Dickenses' one-time dining room, looking out onto Doughty Street. Next to one wall stands the massive mahogany sideboard bought for this room and used by Dickens the rest of his life.
One can imagine happy, convivial dinners around the wine-red mahogany table that once stood here. Dickens loved plying his friends with good food and endless rounds of punch, especially at Christmas. Around his table sat other young men making their way in the world, among them: John Forster, who was Dickens's future biographer; illustrator George Cruikshank; actor William Macready; poet and essayist Leigh Hunt; artist Daniel Maclise; Judge Thomas Talfourd, the model for the delightful Tommy Traddles in ``David Copperfield''; and at least on one occasion, an as yet unknown William Makepeace Thackeray.
Behind the dining room is the morning room, or informal family parlor, looking out on the garden. Here are blacking bottles of the sort on which the child laborer, Charles Dickens, pasted labels in Warren's Blacking Warehouse. Here, too, is the battered stand-up desk he used at about age 15 as a lawyer's clerk in Gray's Inn. The youth's cash book for that period reveals his weekly salary of 13 shillings and sixpence.
Proceeding upstairs, the visitor should note the charming little wooden midshipman on the first landing. Once a London landmark, this is described in ``Dombey and Son.'' Farther up is another famous London street sign, a goldbeater's arm and hammer poised over his stone. This used to be seen at No. 2 Manette Street in Soho and is described in ``A Tale of Two Cities'' in connection with Dr. Manette's lodgings.
Of special interest on the second floor is the carefully reconstructed 1839 Dickens drawing room, decorated as closely as possible to the way it looked when Dickens lived here. Family furniture includes the armchair, upholstered in plum-colored hide, that Dickens used at Furnival's Inn and in this room. Cruikshank sketched the author in this very chair.
A relative observes Dickens's writing habits
To the rear is Dickens's small study with its one window looking down on the garden. For readers this is perhaps the most important room in the house, for here is where ``Oliver Twist'' and ``Nicholas Nickleby'' entered the world.
Writing in this room one evening, Dickens learned that his brother-in-law, Henry Burnett, was paying a call.
``What, you here?'' he exclaimed. ``I'll bring down my work.'' Seated at a small table in the corner of the morning room with Kate and Henry, he added ``little nothings'' to their conversation even as his quill raced across the pages.
``It was interesting to watch upon the sly,'' thought Burnett, ``the mind and muscles working (or ... playing) in company ... the working brow, the set of the mouth, with the tongue tightly pressed against the closed lips, as was his habit.''
Up on the next floor, in what was the author's bedroom, is the splendid Suzannet Collection of Dickens memorabilia. On a preliminary sketch for a ``Nicholas Nickleby'' illustration, Dickens wrote, ``I don't think Smike looks frightened enough.'' Chilling evidence as to why Smike should look frightened is on display in the small back bedroom that was Mary Hogarth's.
Determined to expose certain inhumane Yorkshire boarding schools where parents interned unwanted sons, Dickens visited that region in 1838 and returned to write ``Nicholas Nickleby.''
The monstrous Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall was modeled after a William Shaw who ran one of these child-dumps.
On display is an advertisement of his in the London Times for July 4, 1829, offering an incredible range of subjects from Greek and Latin to surveying and navigation and all for only 20 guineas a year.
The ad ends ominously, ``No vacations except by parents' desire.''
One of Shaw's victims was 18-year-old George Ashton Taylor, a letter of whose is available for the reading, dated Dec. 26, 1818. He assures his mother of his love for her and of his health and happiness. Above the letter is the bill sent for his tombstone. After standing at the grave of this youth killed by Shaw's brutality, Dickens wrote: ``I think his ghost put Smike into my head upon the spot.''
In his diary for Sept. 20, 1839, is recorded: ``Finished Nickleby this day at 2 o'clock.... Thank God that I have lived to get through it happily.'' This novel sold almost 50,000 copies on the first day it appeared.
The other small room on this floor served as a dressing room. Visible is the well-worn, velvet-topped desk the author used for his public readings, and also his ``prompt books'' or copies of the novels with his own underlinings, cross-outs, and stage directions.
Visitors shouldn't miss the basement level of the Dickens House containing the still room, wash house, and once-busy kitchen. The last is now a library where the guestbook can be found, bulging with names.
If you go
The Dickens House is open weekdays, except bank holidays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.