There is something that keeps drawing me back to the story of David Copperfield again and again.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
I adore both the unabridged book and the BBC TV mini-series (the version with Daniel Radcliffe and Maggie Smith). I had heard somewhere that Dickens had loosely based the story of David Copperfield on his own life. With a free weekend in London during the Open Palace Programme, it was time to find out if this was true by visiting the Charles Dickens Museum.
After spending the morning exploring Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, I arrived at the unassuming entrance to The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street about tea time. Being a bit peckish, and not about to pass up an opportunity for Cream Tea (this is the term for black afternoon tea with a scone topped with clotted cream and jam) while in London, I decided to start at the Museum’s tea room.
The tea room is free to access and provides the option to sit in the lovely backyard brick-walled patio, complete with a small fountain and flower beds. With tea, free wifi(!), and a small gurgling fountain, it felt like a small oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city on the other side of the walls. It was no escape, however, from the pigeons! I had to keep ducking as their wings almost grazed the top of my head. I could hear the woosh of the wind through their feathers as they passed. In a nearby alcove with a bench, one lady was reading the day away. It struck me that this is probably exactly what Dickens would have done with his own time in this backyard. It really is the perfect place to read the day away.
Re-energized by tea and a scone, I proceed back to the museum front desk. I decided to splurge the extra £3 for an audio guide because the young man at the register recommended it would make for a more comprehensive tour. I had thought when I entered the museum that I entered by way of Dickens’ entrance hall, but as I stepped through the doorway that was once a wall between Dickens’ townhouse and his neighbor I realized I was wrong. Popping my head back through the wall of time for just a moment to check my assumption, the registrar confirmed it. The house next door had come up for sale about the same time as the house where Dickens had lived, so the organization was able to purchase both. This allowed the museum to maintain the integrity of the Dickens’ house while using the house next door for gift-shop, tea room, admin offices, and thankfully, bathrooms with indoor plumbing. I thanked him and fully immersed myself in the early 1800’s.
Standing just inside Dickens’ front door, I put my audio guide headphones over my ears and let Ollie Dickens, Charles’ great, great, great grandson, guide me through his distinguished ancestor’s first home.
At age 25 Dickens moved into this house with his wife Catharine. The young writer wrote his first books here. His very first, The Pickwick Papers, launched him into the spotlight, consequently increasing both his rank in society as well as his social circle. Often the Dickens’ would host dinner parties for friends in their dining room, the first room off the entrance hall. Dickens loved to entertain. As you walk into the dining hall you hear the clatter of cutlery and chatter as though you’ve walked in on the Dickens dining with friends. Around the table on each plate is a portrait and a name card with a paragraph about the diner at that seat. It is almost as though the long-ago dinners are ghosts in the room with you.
I knew little about Catherine Dickens until I stepped into the Morning Room next door. This was a family room, though from the exhibits, I got the feeling this was more Catherine’s domain. A large, beautiful portrait of Catherine in a green dress, seated with some needlework dominated one wall. She had such a sweet face framed by curls. I stood transfixed. I thought of the way Copperfield doted on his wives and wondered if Charles had been the same.
Just below the painting, under a glass case, was the very needlework Catherine had held while sitting for her portrait! And beside it, her engagement ring which is also visible on her finger in the portrait. Being just inches away from objects I didn’t even have to imagine Catharine touching because of the visual representation, the time between 1837 and the present suddenly felt significantly less lengthy.
From the family room Ollie directed me down to the kitchen where, not only did I find an opportunity to dress-up (almost every museum I visited in England had dress-up stations to engage children!), but I also learned that Catherine was more of an Agnes than a Dora for Dickens. She wrote a book called What Shall We Have for Dinner? which not only supplied recipes, but instructions for cooking for large dinner party size groups. According to Ollie, these meals are rather sumptuous. (For those unfamiliar with the story, Copperfield’s first wife Dora is sweet but useless while his second, Agnes, is capable of running a home and providing a mental partnership for David.)
Moving from the kitchen to the Scullery, my nose perked up. Herbs hung from the drying rack, smelling delightful. This museum has really figured out how to engage all five of your senses in order to really immerse you in the 1800s during your visit!
Upstairs is where we finally begin to get a real sense of Charles Dickens, the man behind the stories. This is best understood by stepping into his drawing room, a room dressed in plum and mauve tones, the author’s favorite color. The furniture in the house has been culled from all the houses Dickens lived in and the items selected are most relevant to his life story. In his drawing room you’ll find his custom-built lectern and a large mirror over the mantle. Here, in the room next to his study, you can just imagine the flamboyant author. He paces into the room to pull faces in the mirror until he just “gets” his character. Then returns to his writing. On other nights he practices for his public readings in front of the mirror, acting with his full body.
The lectern is built so that you can see his legs. He used it to perform readings around London. Using his full body to act out the characters took a lot out of the author, and it may have been these antics that eventually caught up with him in the end. He adored his fans and the attention.
Proceeding further upstairs, we begin to learn of the troubled private life of the adored author. In his bedroom we learn that Catherine divorced Charles when he grew to love the public attention more than her. He then went on to make a public statement about their divorce, airing their dirty laundry, so to speak. Here, in the most private room of the house, I was suddenly joined by about ten more tourists. It seemed depressingly fitting to watch so many members of the public pore over artifacts of this intimate chamber.
As if not depressing enough, in the next room you find the bedroom of Dickens’ 17 year-old sister-in-law who strangely succumbed to a sudden illness one evening, throwing Dickens into despair.
Finally, in the nursery at the top of the house, the museum presents Dickens’ own childhood story- of a father in debtors prison much like Copperfield’s Mr. McCawber. The gate of the old prison is present in the center of the room. To aid with the lack of finances, Charles, like his character David, was sent off to a blacking factory.
Having followed the audio guide and the Visitor Guide through the entire house, I stepped, blinking in surprise, from the Nursery back into the next-door residence and back into the present. Whether I was ready or not, Charles was once again a distant character of a long-time-ago, or was it David? Somewhere along the way they had started to fuse together.
Dine and Walk in the Footsteps of Dickens
Dinner at the George
If you finish with the museum and are ready for dinner and a drink, I suggest heading to The George Inn, London’s last surviving galleried coaching inn. Charles Dickens frequented this inn and even mentioned it in his novel Little Dorrit.
The Golden Dog at the corner of Blackfriars Road and Union Street
After dinner you’ll need to walk off the pub food. A 15 minute walk will take you to a lamppost topped with a replica of a shop sign Dickens used to pass on his way home. The sculpture of a dog licking a pot was once a sign for an ironmonger. At the base of the post is a stone inscribed with the words Dickens wrote about this sign, “My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, an the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other.”
Are you a fan of Charles Dickens? If you could visit your favorite author’s house, who would you choose? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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