Dickens and London

08/12/2011 by Stacey Bartlett

Kick-starting the celebrations of Charles Dickens’ bicentenary is the Museum of London’s Dickens and London exhibition

The exhibition, which includes sections from the original manuscripts of Bleak House and David Copperfield, examines the important relationship Dickens had with London and how it came to influence his works – from the blacking factory he worked in on the Thames as a boy, to his father’s imprisonment for debt. 

Dickens’ writing desk and chair from his house at Gad’s Hill is the star attraction; the very place at which he wrote Great Expectations is pockmarked with quill scratches and looks remarkably humble for the author who commanded up to £30,000 a day for personal appearances.
 
Also on show is the only surviving costume of the early 19th century clown Joseph Grimaldi, whose performances Dickens enjoyed immensely as a boy – he was a life-long theatre lover and often held private performances starring his ten children to entertain guests. 
 
An impressive collection of Victorian art depicts everyday London life, from fruit sellers at Covent Garden market to Luke Fildes’s Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward: a grim scene of the homeless queuing up outside a workhouse. One of Dickens’ more subtle philanthropic endeavours was to expose the realities of poor London – the more he saw on his nighttime walks, the more he felt compelled to be a voice for the lower classes. 
 
At the end of the exhibition is a screening of a short documentary – The Houseless Shadow - by William Raban, who recreated Dickens’ midnight walks of London and covertly filmed the insomniac city streets. His mission was to become invisible, and he carried his filming equipment in a large supermarket bag so passersby wouldn’t realise they were being filmed. Passages from Dickens’ works are read out and we see the streets as they are now, 150 years later but probably not so different; homeless people; drunks falling out of pubs; street entertainers and amorous couples all make up the circus show of London’s early hours and have done for centuries.
 
Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London and lead curator of Dickens and London, said: “Dickens is the first author to describe the modern city of the 19th century and its profound impact on society and, in particular, on ordinary people. 
 
“London was Dickens’ inspiration. He knew its alleys and streets better than anyone. His writings remain relevant today especially for the rapidly developing mega-cities around the world today, which face many of the problems and challenges that impacted on Victorian London 150 years ago.” 
 
Alex Werner’s book Dickens’ Victorian London is out now, published by Ebury. 
 
Information about the exhibition can be found here. Adult tickets for the exhibition are £8; children and concessions are £6. The exhibition is open until June.
 

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