The houses where illustrious people lived make for me, if they are open to the public, some the most fascinating museums. Victor Hugo’s house in Paris, Dvorak’s mansion in Prague, Beethoven’s house in Bonn come to mind as some of the more interesting of these places. London has its fair share of such houses as a reader pointed out when he referred me to the site at Londonshh.org.
If any one writer epitomizes London, especially Victorian London, then it’s Charles Dickens. So many of the capital’s areas are mentioned in his books although, clearly, so many have also changed through the years. But the inns of court are still there eating up people’s resources in interminable cases as in “Bleak House”, the same churches still clang their bells on Sundays which happily are no longer as lugubrious as those described in “Little Dorrit”, the same river flows through the metropolis with its still frequent cargo of unrecognized bodies, as mentioned in “Our Mutual Friend” and among the city’s inhabitants there still exist an extraordinary number of eccentric characters worthy of description by a Dickensian pen.
Dickens experienced everything from poverty to riches in that city which he knew so well and where he would go on ten and more miles daily walks. A visit to his house at 48 Doughty street, between Gray’s inn of court and the old Foundling hospital (which counted Handel among its benefactors), is an absolute must for lovers of his works.
Doughty street is one of the best preserved Georgian terraces in the metropolis and Dickens was rightly proud when he could afford to live in it between 1835 and 1840. It was here that he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, where he passed the only really happy years with his wife, Catherine, (they separated later on), where two further children, Kate and Mary, were born, bringing the offspring to five, but sadly , too, where his real love , Mary, his wife’s sister who lived with the family and helped it out, died in his arms in 1837.
Through a multi-million pound grant the author’s house has been beautifully restored and brought back to New life. Completed in 2012 at the same time as the Kensington palace project it is in my opinion a far more successful revamping. As the curator told me “if Dickens walked in here one day he would be very pleased to recognize so much of his house had remained the same as he remembered it.” (We could not really have thought the same if Queen Victoria returned to her rooms in Kensington Palace.).
From the basement kitchen, through the dining and reception rooms up to the bedrooms and beyond to the nursery and the servants’ rooms one’s itinerary through the house is utterly engrossing. One truly feels that Charles Dickens is looking over one’s shoulder! How amazing it would have been to have joined in one of his convivial dinners or accompanied him on one of his London walks!
It’s such a shame that Dickens died when not yet sixty. How would he have concluded that unfinished novel “the mystery of Edwin Drood”, I wonder.