Dickens and London

Charles Dickens' London, full of strangeness, suffering and laughter, is ever closer to today's metropolis, John Bowen argues

December 8, 2011

Credit: Dickens' Dream, 1875 by Robert William Buss, © Charles Dickens Museum
The best of times: Robert Buss' Dickens' Dream, an uncompleted homage to the author's fecundity

Dickens and London

Museum of London

9 December until 10 June 2012

It's a good idea to begin the new Dickens and London exhibition right at the end, where William Raban's short film The Houseless Shadow runs on a 20-minute loop. To the accompaniment of Dickens' haunting essay "Night Walks", we see shots of modern London at night. There's no Dickensian kitsch here, no gas lamps, carol singers or jolly fat men, just drunks and homeless people sheltering from the rain, with the shops' mannequins looking cosy inside and the security cameras staring down. They are familiar enough images and yet made unfamiliar by the meditative, noticing gaze of Raban's camera, which matches the solicitude of Dickens' text, where sympathy is pushed to the point of identification with London's poor and homeless.

As his bicentenary year begins, there is going to be a deluge of Dickensian publications, adaptations, celebrations and marketing opportunities. Only the Olympics will be able to stop it. For the most part, it should be fun: two sparkling biographies by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Claire Tomalin have led the charge, and the BBC will soon be following with new adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickensians' diaries are filling up, as everywhere from Teesdale to Segovia rushes to play its part in the festivities.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has nearly all of Dickens' manuscripts and proofs, generously given to the nation by his friend and biographer John Forster. It is strangely quiet this year but the Museum of London has stepped into the breach with a major exhibition, the first devoted to Dickens' work in nearly half a century. It's a busy, bustling, fluid show. Divided in two by great screens, the exhibition wraps around itself, with a Thames-like flow. On the screens we see projections of streets and characters emerging and disappearing, ghosts of a world we have lost.

Some strange survivors of the places that Dickens knew arrest the flow: the porters' box from Furnival's Inn where he had his first home; a door from Newgate Prison; street furniture and pub signs. There are little things too, full of pathos: pots from Warren's Blacking Warehouse where Dickens worked as a child; broken crockery dug out from Jacob's Island where Bill Sikes fell to his death; a child circus-performer's tiny shoe. The posher side of Dickens' life is here, too, in the shape of a vast ledger of his bank account at Coutts and a generous cheque to buy jewels, almost certainly for his lover, the actress Ellen Ternan.

It is good to remember how significant London was to Dickens, and how important they both are to us. London was the place he returned to most often in his fiction, the home of the Micawbers and Little Dorrit, David Copperfield and Silas Wegg. The unparalleled chronicler of its lives and voices, he was its "special correspondent for posterity", in Walter Bagehot's phrase. Over his lifetime, the city changed into a world of commuters and telegraphs, omnibuses and underground railways, as Victorian London forged a path that every city in the world has followed since. Dickens saw it first, and registered, as no one else could, its strangeness, suffering and laughter.

Any back alley or greasy chophouse could be the stage for an unforgettable drama in his work. He was fascinated by the shabby-genteel clerks and street children that he saw and, like his great contemporary Henry Mayhew, captured their chaff and blague for eternity. He would see everyone from the 13-year-old prostitute on her way to prison in Sketches by Boz to the "sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, over-fed, apoplectic, snorting cattle" troughing their faces at a City of London dinner. Trying to write in Switzerland, he yearned for the spectacle of London streets: "A day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern is immense!!"

He hated it too, of course, more and more as he grew older, keeping a base there but spending more and more time away, in Kent or France or just travelling. So it is right that the celebrations this year will be global, with conferences and lectures, exhibitions and festivals not just in the France and Switzerland that he loved and the America he quarrelled with, but also in India, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. Dickens has always been global Dickens.

He has always been adaptable Dickens, too. Victorian stage managers turned his novels into plays before he had half-finished them. A good amateur magician, he loved the theatre and magic-lantern shows, and his work adapts readily to the world of cinema, graphic novel and iPhone. There's an exhibition app and the British Film Institute is running a retrospective of Dickens films. Spanning almost the whole of the 20th century, they are testament to a visual imagination that, as Sergei Eisenstein showed, anticipated the grammar of modern cinema in its use of close-up and montage. A copy of the "Death of Nancy" from Oliver Twist is in the exhibition, open at her death. "Action", Dickens has written in the margin when Sikes strikes the blow, and a little later "Terror to the End".

It is moving to see the manuscripts and proofs close up. Several come from the Victoria and Albert Museum; Great Expectations is on a rare excursion from its home in Wisbech. The exhibition is not too reverent, though, and makes a brave shot at capturing the side of Dickens that goes beyond his social documentary and social reforming sides. As if eager to fly away from the cramped handwriting and crossings-out below, phrases from the manuscripts swirl above in giant letters: MONSTER; VANISH; LASCAR; HE SPEAKS.

There is a strong suite of pictures from the Museum of London's own collection, by Gustave Doré, David Roberts and others. They are an invaluable record of the visual culture that Dickens knew but none of the paintings come near to his prose in evoking the fantastic - in every sense - novelty of the new urban world.

Probably the most famous image of Dickens of all is Robert Buss' unfinished posthumous painting Dickens' Dream (pictured above), of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head, oblivious to him and to each other. Next to the painting is the desk and chair at which he wrote and which Buss drew. We see the relics and pay our homage; but there is a cheeky animation of Buss' picture, too. Dickens rolls his eyes and grinds his teeth like a Monty Python cartoon as Barnaby Rudge jives above him and Oliver asks for more.

The most arresting moment of the exhibition comes at the very end in the shape of Luke Fildes' great 1874 canvas, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward. Huddled against the cold, the wind knifing through their clothes, a group of paupers press against the workhouse wall, a frieze of misery. In the cases around are some of the sadder fragments of Dickensian London - a child's white coffin, blacking pots, mourning paper.

In one way, of course, it is an immeasurably distant world. London today, a century and a half on, is unrecognisable from its Victorian ancestor, an altogether bigger, richer and brighter city. But we are closer to Dickens' world than we were at the last great celebration of his work in 1970, at the high-water mark of full employment and the welfare state. The gap between rich and poor has grown bigger with every decade since then, and is rapidly returning to near-Victorian levels. As we leave, Raban's film is still running.


John Bowen is professor of 19th-century literature in the department of English and related literature at the University of York.

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