For Dickens, it was a not-so-bleak house
PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND — The full span of Charles Dickens's life can be seen at his birthplace in Portsmouth, England - fromthe room where the famous author was born in 1812 to the green velvet chaise-longue couch upon which he died in 1870.
In between, of course, were all the wonderful stories, and the 2,000 characters he brought to life.
We traveled south from London to Portsmouth (a little over 1-1/2 hours from Waterloo station) on a late June day. Rain was coming down as we sped past green fields and small villages.
For 500 years, Portsmouth has been the seat of Britain's Navy (Henry VIII's flagship, Mary Rose, is here, as is Lord Nelson's HMS Victory).
Dickens's father worked for the Navy Pay Office, and arrived in Portsmouth in 1809. In those days, Portsmouth was a harsh place, according to Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd. The town would have been full of the "smell of drunkenness" and a "relatively violent place - full of men who had been in the Napoleonic Wars." The streets, he writes, would not have been safe at night.
Today the center of Portsmouth is vintage 1950s, since much of it was bombed in World War II. But the birthplace of the creator of "A Christmas Carol," "David Copperfield," "Oliver Twist," and numerous other books, was saved.
We took a quick cab ride to the house, and found it on a quiet street of two-story houses near the sea. The Dickens house is red brick, with symmetrical paned windows facing the street, a black iron fence enclosing a small garden.
The entry to the house is not through the original front door, but below, on what would be called the lower ground floor.
It's easy to imagine his mother carrying him across the wooden planked hall and up and down stairs. In fact, Dickens once wrote: "So far back do my recollections of childhood extend, that I have a vivid remembrance of the sensation of being carried downstairs in a woman's arms, and holding tight to her, in the terror of seeing the steep perspective below."
All the rooms of the house are decorated in Regency style, popular when the family lived in this house between 1809 and 1812. The original wallpaper designs have been re-created, and Mrs. Dickens's painted dresser from her kitchen has survived and is on display.
In Charles Dickens's day the house had a view of fields of hay and vegetables, some windmills along the shore, and the Portsmouth Harbor. Today the view from the back of the house and garden is blocked by industrial buildings.
Dickens's mother, Elizabeth, came from Bristol and had clerics in her family, as well as makers of musical instruments. She was 23 when Charles was born. (He was her second child, born when his sister, Fanny, was 18 months old.)
It's said that Elizabeth was cheerful and fond of dancing, and her power of imitation was strong. Perhaps she passed on this quality of mimicry to her son.
Dickens's father, John, was the son of a servant and lived in the wealthy household of his father's employer until he was 20 or 21. He went to work in the office of the treasury of the Royal Navy in 1807.
John was polite and good-looking, according to reports. He was described by a contemporary at the Naval Pay Office as "a fellow of infinite humor, chatty, lively, and agreeable."
A bust of John Dickens that now stands on the landing outside the birth room was made later in life when he achieved a sort of fame because of the success of his son.
The family lived in this rented house for only a few months after Charles's birth. Then they moved to another house in Portsmouth, which offered lower rent. By 1815 the family moved from Portsmouth to Chatham and later to London.
But this little house is where it all began for Charles Dickens, and seems the setting for his later longings for a happy family.
The image of a secure childhood was brief for Dickens. After the family moved to London, his father, who could not pay his bills, was taken to debtors' prison.
At age 12, young Dickens was sent to work in a blacking (boot polish) factory, which traumatized him, but also eventually gave him material for his stories. The orphans he often wrote about - David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Pip of "Great Expectations" - all had a bit of Charles Dickens in them.
Although he was not an orphan, the feeling of abandonment was part of him. His charming father had so much trouble paying his debts and staying out of prison that this pattern continued the rest of his life. Dickens's characters of Micawber ("David Copperfield") and William Dorrit ("Little Dorrit") are versions of his father.
When his father felt enough on his feet to have his son stop the grueling, dirty work at the factory, his mother nevertheless wanted him to continue, to help the family's finances.
Dickens never forgot that. His mother's character, too, showed up in his stories - as in Mrs. Nickleby in "Nicholas Nickleby."
But in Portsmouth, the little Dickens family, was, by all accounts, a happy young family, living in the cozy brick house not far from the sea.
It's reported that Dickens returned to Portsmouth three times after he achieved fame, and in 1866, with his manager, he looked for his birthplace, but was unsure which of the small houses it was.
"Eventually," says Rosalinda M. C. Hardiman of the Birthplace Museum, "he did a mock collapse upon a set of steps, pretending to be a lovesick clown. The householder came out and chased the two men away, little knowing that one was the famous writer Charles Dickens."
The top floor of the house holds some memorabilia - a lock of his brown hair, a photo of Dickens reading to his daughter, and the green couch, now surrounded by a brass rail, with a sign cautioning visitors not to sit on it.
We crept up to the little attic where a cupboard holds souvenirs sold during Dickens's day that related to his popular books. Until Dickens, no authors had items marketed to go with their books.
When we left, each step toward the shopping area of Portsmouth and the train station took us away from the sea and away from the humble beginnings of the author whose stories were as popular in his day as the adventures of Harry Potter are today.
Charles Dickens never forgot his beginnings: His novels revolved around the great themes of treatment of the poor, the working class, and especially children.
And it all began in the little brick house in Portsmouth, England.