Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Charles Dickens Museum

The Charles Dickens Museum
48 Doughty Street WC1N 2LX

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Today was a particular pleasure for Linda and me, because we were visiting one lovely museum with the Friends of another: The Cartoon Museum;  so thanks to Jane for organising the trip. (and a reminder that their Alice in Cartoonland exhibition is about to open)

We met at 11.00 and were led to the 'Boardroom' for a brief introduction from the Curator who, we think, probably originated in New Zealand. She explained that of the two houses, only one had been the Dickens residence, but having both means that admin and shop and cafe can be in one, leaving the original feeling very much like a home. The terrace was built in 1807, and the Dickens family lived here from 1837-1839, Dickens referring to it as 'my house in town'.  This was the period when he had ceased to be a journalist, having completed the stupendously  best-selling Pickwick Papers. It was here, the Curator told us, that he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and also began to edit his newspaper.  The Curator also mentioned a few highlights that we should look out for, and we began our exploration of the house.  There was a treasure hunt around the place, concerning the Mystery of Edwin Drood, though this, his last work, had nothing to do with the actual house we were in.

The hallway has interesting items on its wall: maps of London at the time, letters, including one about starting work on Barnaby Rudge, and a poster for Dickens' Boxing Day sports at Gads Hill House.  Illustrations from, or about the books were everywhere, and in fact there is about to be a small exhibition about the illustrators.

(By the way, I am not putting a Wikilink to each of the novels as I am assuming either (a) that my readers have read them or (b) that they can find details for themselves.  Though, interestingly, there were many foreign visitors in the house, including a large number of Italian young people: can Dickens be on the syllabus in Italy, we wondered)

The Dining Room has atmospheric street sounds (horses, rather than cars) and dinner party conversation. The dinner service is embellished with portraits of famous contemporaries, including Thackeray and the artist, Daniel Maclise, several of whose works are on display in the house.  For example, the Morning Room has a charming picture of Catherine, by Maclise, in which you can clearly see her engagement ring, which is also displayed in the house. The Curator had told us that it is the model for Dora Spenlow's ring, with the little blue stones.

We then headed down to the basement to see the kitchen, scullery, wash-house and wine store (with suitably dusty bottles. There was at least a water supply in the kitchen, and a copper to heat water in the wash-house.  

We liked the candleholders with their long carrying handles, which we felt were safer than the type that has a small handle on the saucer.  The whole basement area provided us with the opportunity to remind ourselves why we are glad we did not live in 'the olden times', especially since we are probably of the class which would have been emptying chamber pots and using washing dollies, rather than enjoying London life. The explanations throughout the house were clear and interesting, describing fully which items had a direct Dickens link and which were simply of the period.

Back upstairs in the Drawing Room, we listened to a recording of Simon Callow (as Dickens) reading from Pickwick Papers, while we looked at the theatre posters round the wall.  Next door is the Study, with the desk and the waste paper basket as it might have been when Dickens was searching for the right phrases to include in A Christmas Carol. I mention this because it is a sample of how the house really does feel like the home of the author, despite his brief tenancy here.  Many of the novels are displayed here, as well as pictures of some of the characters, and the Robert W Bass painting 'Dicken's Dream', with his many characters coming to life around him.

Upstairs again and you come to two bedrooms and Dickens' small dressing room.  There are toilet articles here, including his razor and brushes.

Next door is Mary Hogarth's room.  Because Dickens was so affected by the unexpected death of his much-loved sister-in-law, this room contains quite a lot of objects and information about death, including his lawyer's copy of his will, with the large bequest to his mistress, Ellen Ternan)

The two rooms on the top floor are the Servant's Room, and the Nursery; as well as toys, and the stuffed raven, Grip, there is a charming sketch of the four Dickens children, and a bust of John Dickens, looking across the room at a painting of Mr Micawber, whom he so much resembled.  There is also the original grille of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, a part of Dickens' childhood which he never forgot, and which he depicted in Little Dorrit.  Another reference to his childhood comes in the form of some blacking bottles froom Warren's Blacking Factory, where the young Dickens was put to work in his boyhood.

We also saw a window, set in the wall, which is supposed to be the window in Chertsey which inspired Dickens to describe Bill Sykes forcing the young and innocent Oliver Twist though it to burgle the house.

The Servant's Room has been turned into a kind of scrap book of extracts from the novels, not only on the walls, but also, rather disconcertingly, on a duvet cover. I do not think I would like to sleep under the deathbed scene of Joe the crossing sweeper from Bleak House!

Back downstairs, we paused briefly in a small room with a time line and a virtual tour, as well as an animation of the Bass painting of Dickens' Dream; also quite a lot of information about his struggle to get authors protected by proper copyright laws.  We looked into the Edwin Drood room, before departing, feeling that we had a convincing insight into how the man might have lived his life in these two years in his 20s.

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