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On the 150th anniversary of the great writer’s death, this guest article by London Historians Member Stanley Slaughter.

 

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Copy of Charles Dickens’s death certificate.

200portraitCharles Dickens, who died 150 years ago today in 1870, was the quintessential novelist of London. Apart from Hard Times, all his novels are set at least partly in the city. In some, like Oliver Twist, Bleak House or Little Dorrit, the capital is an overwhelming, even defining presence.

Dickens, who lived most of his life in more than 20 different addresses in the city, readily acknowledged its inspirational powers. In a letter in 1846 to John Forster, his close friend and future biographer, the author wrote “a day in London sets me up and starts me.” When outside the city, “the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern are IMMENSE.”

By that time, Dickens was 34 and had already written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father, John, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, moved his family briefly to Camden while Charles was a baby but was then stationed in various towns in southern England. The family moved back to London in 1822, leaving Charles at school in Rochester.

Two years later, Charles, now 12, joined his family just before his recklessly spendthrift father was forced into the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea in Southwark. John met his son at a coach station in Charing Cross and the pair walked northwards to their lodgings in Camden.

marshalsea

Plaque on what remains of the old Marshalsea Prison in Southwark.

What the boy saw on this three mile walk must have both thrilled and appalled him. It certainly stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The sheer intensity of the smells must have been overwhelming. Streets full of horse manure from the thousands of carriages, the raw sewage running down the gutters, the suffocating black smoke and soot belching from hundreds of chimneys which created the legendary fogs and smogs.

But there was also the frantic bustle of the people. “There was smoke in the air and filth on the grounds, but also excitement and bustle. Carts, horses and pigs were part of the scene, men on horseback, pony traps, carriages, and among the throng of men and women there were a great many children, mostly poor ragged and barefoot,” Claire Tomalin wrote in her outstanding biography Charles Dickens A Life.

It left the young Dickens with a “lifelong fascination with the vibrant street-life of the city,” Elizabeth James wrote in Charles Dickens. For the next decade he was a committed walker throughout the city, sometimes covering up to 20 miles a day. He regularly visited Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Regent’s Park (after it opened in 1835), Soho and Limehouse.

He became particularly interested in the Strand and Covent Garden, then a lively fruit and vegetable market but Seven Dials especially drew him. It was then a “notoriously unsavoury maze of narrow passages lined with gin shops and dingy straggling houses teeming with squalid, half naked children,” James wrote.

Dickens told Forster: “Good heavens. What wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want and beggary arose in my mind out of that place.”

And all the while he walked around London, Dickens, already blessed with excellent powers of observation, used his vivid and restless imagination to conjure up stories about the sights and characters he regularly saw.

Elizabeth Roylance, his landlady in his new lodgings in College Place, Camden became the mean and miserly Mrs Pipchin in Dombey and Son, the poor and underfed children were the basis of Fagin’s gang while Fagin himself was named after an unsuspecting workmate at the blacking factory on Hungerford Stairs where Dickens was forced to work.

But Dickens had also moved into a London that was changing rapidly as industrialisation took hold. The city’s population at the turn of the century was one million. By the time Dickens died in 1870, it was around four million.

Thousands of grand new houses were built for the rich but in much of London, the wealthy were never far from areas of abject poverty. Dickens could barely suppress his contempt for inhabitants of many of these houses, like the ghastly Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.

It was the poor and hard done by, especially children, the innocents and orphans caught up in a world which offered them no favours, for whom Dickens had unbounded compassion. There is a string of such children in his books, from Esther Summerson and Jo, the persecuted crossing sweeper in Bleak House, Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop to Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.

But it was not just the soaring population and the advancing industrialisation which so radically changed London. In Dickens’ eyes, the coming of the railways wreaked havoc across many acres of London. Thousands of houses were pulled down and people, usually the less well off, were made homeless as the new lines and stations were built. Dickens blurted out his exasperation of this in Dombey and Son.

In the end, London became too much for Dickens. The light hearted spirit of his youth and thrill of being in the city, which ran through The Pickwick Papers, was replaced by something much darker.

He wrote to his friend, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1851: “London is a vile place….I have never taken kindly to it since I lived abroad. Whenever I come back from the country, now, and see that great heavy canopy over the housetops, I wonder what on earth I do there, except on obligation.” Five years later, Dickens bought Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, where he had spent part of his childhood, and moved out of London.

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Dickens’s Dream. Unfinished watercolour by Robert William Buss, 1875. Charles Dickens Museum.

Dickens did retain a measure of nostalgia for London. In a series of essays written when he lived at Gad’s Hill and published in All the Year Round, a magazine Dickens owned and edited, he re-visited parts of London he remembered from his younger days.

These included the Inns of Court, churches and old theatres. The recollections were not without affection. But the magic lantern had dimmed.

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Further Reading.
Even in Death, Charles Dickens Left Behind a Riveting Tale of Deceit, By Leon Litvack, Smithsonian Magazine, 5 Feb 2020.
Wikipedia entry.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) (paywall).

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