Charles Dickens cherished London, warts and all. Two centuries after his birth, a new exhibition presents the U.K. capital through his eyes.
“Dickens and London” (through June 2012 at the Museum of London) showcases a 19th-century capital city with throbbing theaters, teeming pubs, billboard-bearing “sandwich men,” and vagabonds sleeping on the street.
On the face of it, the place hasn’t changed all that radically. The show includes a recently directed London-by-night movie, voiced over with Dickens texts. While modern-day sidewalks crawl with fast-food stalls and nightclub bouncers, they also host homeless people in sleeping bags.
Dickens is the perfect theme for the Museum of London -- an excuse to sift through its extensive collection for an evocative array of period prison-door knockers, pawnbrokers’ tickets, and sewing kits, none of which were specific to Dickens.
The showstoppers are those items that can be traced directly back to him: the manuscript of “Great Expectations” (in tiny cursive, with crossed-out words), the peeling leather desk on which it was written, a signed check, a soup ladle, and a shopping list instructing the butler to buy cooked ham and Yorkshire pie from Fortnum & Mason, the Piccadilly superstore.
If you care to read the captions, even the generic displays have a Dickens link of some kind. An 1817 rent-arrears notice, for example, is paired with a relevant quote from “David Copperfield,” instantly bringing the yellowed document to life.
Dickens was born in February 1812 in Portsmouth. His father, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, was then posted to London. Ten-year-old Charles traveled to the capital in a stagecoach paved with damp straw, and settled there, marrying the daughter of a newspaper editor and fathering 10 children.
The show opens with a grand 1859 portrait by William Powell Frith showing Dickens in a velvet smoking jacket, one arm draped over the back of his chair. To Frith, here was a man “who had reached the topmost rung of a very high ladder, and was perfectly aware of his position.” Dickens found the picture “a little too much.”
Nearby are images of the author’s family: One shows his matronly, bonneted wife; another has him flanked by two grown daughters at their Kent country house. Next to them is a photo of his secret mistress Ellen Ternan, curls tumbling down her back. Aged 18 when they met, she was cast in his plays (posters are on display) and accompanied him till death.
Home for Women
Dickens also looked out for “fallen women” --prostitutes. He created a home for them in London, and helped a group of “distressed needlewomen” get a fresh start by migrating to Australia.
The author was even more exercised about child labor, having experienced it himself. At age 12, he was sent by his debt-ridden parents to work in a “blacking” (boot polish) factory, where he slapped labels on polish containers (examples of the stoneware jars are shown).
The factory is pictured in an 1830 painting by John Harley, “Hungerford Stairs.” Dickens drew inspiration from it in “David Copperfield,” describing “a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, and on the mud when the tide was out, and literally overrun with rats.”
Dickens’s London had a dark and ugly side, and it sometimes got smelly. In July 1858, the novelist lived through the “Great Stink,” when flushing toilets proliferated without a proper sewage system to accommodate them.
Crossing the river was “most horrible,” Dickens recalled. “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”
It still didn’t damp his affection for the city, which he termed a place of “wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger, all treading on each other and crowding together.”
“Dickens and London” ends June 10, 2012, at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN. Information: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk or +44-20-7001-9844.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)