Dickensland: The Curious History of Dickens's London by Lee Jackson
Yale University Press, 2023
That the term ‘Dickensian’ immediately evokes a particular literary ambience full of colourful characters, bustling London streets, and tenebrous, intricately woven plot-lines is a testament to the genius of Charles Dickens. However, as Lee Jackson shows in his latest book Dickensland: The Curious History of Dickens’s London, after the writer’s death in 1870 a whole new dimension opened up, providing admirers of his work with a route map of important sights to visit – some real and some fictitious.
It took about ten years, until 1880, for what Jackson terms ‘Dickensian tourism’ to get started, with guided rambles through the locations named in his novels, and magic lantern slide shows of his most famous scenes offered in halls up and down the country. Jackson selects some key places to explore how the interest in ‘Dickensland’ gathered the momentum which it partially retains to this day. Starting out with Dickens’ first big hit, The Pickwick Papers, Jackson highlights the romance of the old coaching inns that feature prominently in that novel and which, with the advent of the railways, were soon to become a nostalgic symbol of bygone times. Not that these establishments were all as cosily welcoming as Dickens often portrayed them: in an 1851 article entitled “Of The Good Old Coaching Days,” the writer Albert Smith described fellow passengers arriving drunk due to the rigours of the journey, to then be confronted by inconvenient lather-less soap cubes and cramped rooms. Nevertheless Dickens, with customary brio, portrayed these establishments as an intrinsic part of the endearing Pickwickian world, leading his late Victorian devotees to seek out what remained of them.
The next locale in Jackson’s survey is a burial ground in Russell Court (near the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) which features in Bleak House at the novel’s denouement. As melodramatically tragic as that finale may seem, the documented facts concerning this burial ground and others in the surrounding area are far grimmer. In the 1780s a certain Mr Groves wrote a letter of complaint detailing how the corpses of the poor were “tumbled into one common hole with dogs, rats and ducks gnawing at the half-putrefied flesh.” By the 1830s, with cholera rife, there were tales of a “foul smelling miasma continually steaming from the dead bodies,” often piled on top of each other in shallow graves. As Jackson puts it, with regard to the unsanitary conditions of Victorian London, this was “a metaphor for a neglected and mismanaged metropolis.”
One of Dickens’ greatest admirers was Louisa May Alcott, the American author of Little Women, who in 1866 recorded the first known instance of a tour to London focussed on the locations mentioned in the novels. Alcott was something of a Dickens superfan, able to recite large passages from his novels, and twice saw him give public readings, at which she was unimpressed by his decidedly ostentatious dress (“Why will he wear two rivers of watch guards…a diamond ring on each hand (and) curl up his hair?” Alcott’s account of Dickensian London in the mid-nineteenth century would, however, prove to be a swan-song for those tourists who came after her, as many of the real sites were being swept away in the London County Council’s improvement campaign. This generated newspaper items with titles like ‘Disappearing Dickensland’ and ‘Vanishing Dickens’ London.’ Thankfully the Victorians were very interested in preserving their historical heritage, and the places where Dickens had lived were high priorities for recognition with the blue plaque, the brainchild of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Although Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first Dickens plaque was put up at Wood’s Hotel, formerly known as Furnival’s Inn, the site of his bachelor apartment as a young novelist. After the plaque had been affixed the landlord of Wood’s Hotel placed a newspaper advert in 1888 declaring that “the very rooms occupied by the master of fiction are reverentially preserved by the present proprietor.” Meanwhile the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, founded in 1875, was busy capturing images of London’s built environment, including many locations referenced by Dickens that didn’t survive the Capital’s regeneration schemes towards the end of the century.
Visiting writers’ houses in general became a popular pastime in the nineteenth century, and Dickens himself made his own pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1838. Dickens’ final home, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, never became a literary shrine since the property was sold soon after his death, and most of the contents auctioned off. Today 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury houses the main Charles Dickens Museum, the property into which the young, newly married novelist moved in 1837 and where he completed The Pickwick Papers as well as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. In 1925 it was opened as a museum, thanks to generous overseas benefactors, and continues to flourish.
As for the most famous locations in Dickens’ novels, a set of stone steps leading down from the present-day London Bridge to the vicinity of Southwark Cathedral have been awarded their own blue plaque as “the scene of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist.” Although the original steps have long since vanished and were not in fact the scene of the crime, actually committed in Bill Sikes’s lodgings, the site has continued to attract tourists for almost 150 years; Jackson highlights the influence of Oliver!, the 1968 hit cinematic version of the novel, which binds together disparate elements of the original plot and shows Nancy’s death taking place by the river. As Jackson says, “it is a curious feature of ‘Dickens’s London’ that there is a Dickensian city of the imagination, larger and more capacious than any site or memorial.” Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon can be seen in one particular location just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields on Portsmouth Street, a “squat, soot-blackened relic of Tudor London” earmarked for demolition before being dubbed The Old Curiosity Shop and attracting hordes of tourists, despite having no connection with Dickens or his work. Indeed, the fact that at the end of the novel Dickens states that the shop itself had been demolished further adds to the curiosity of this imaginary location.
Towards the end of the book Jackson widens his scope from tourist attractions in London —whether real or fabricated— to the wider representations of Dickensland in all its myriad forms. He begins with an account of a ‘Dickens Bazaar,’ an early immersive experience held at Holborn Town Hall in 1888 in which a number of stalls themed around the author’s novels sold various items to the public, with the proceeds going to charity. This was followed by the ‘Dickens Village’ exhibition at Alexandra Palace in 1899, which claimed to be “a graphically correct representation of the bygone days of Old London, of which the late Charles Dickens was so faithful an interpreter.”
Adaptations of the novelist’s work were also fodder for the first silent films. The earliest known example is TheDeath of Poor Jo (1901), an episode from Bleak House, followed in the same year by Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost, which attempted to compress A Christmas Carol into six minutes. In the 1940s David Lean brought, as Jackson puts it, “a gloomy, forbidding expressionism” to the author’s work in films like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, an aesthetic which remains iconic, stamping an impression on the popular imagination of what a Dickens narrative should look and feel like. However, with the previously-mentioned 1968 film version of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! the austere Lean interpretation gave way to a riotously colourful version of Dickensland —although in some respects director Carol Reed does acknowledge the noirish quality of Lean’s work in the less upbeat scenes.
From here Jackson goes on to consider further notable films of Dickens’ novels. These include The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), which has steadily grown in popularity thanks to seasonal showings, and the several adaptations of the novels for television, of which the BBC’s 2005 version of Bleak House is surely amongst the finest. Ten years afterwards one of the more curious interpretations of Dickens’ oeuvre reached our television screens in the form of Dickensian, half-hour episodes written by Eastenders’ Tony Jordan in the soap opera format. Jackson describes this series as a ‘mash-up,’ combining various well-known characters from different novels who interact with each other to produce new storylines: thus Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion is within walking distance of The Old Curiosity Shop which, in turn, is not far from the home of Bob Cratchit and his family.
Away from the world of film and television, various attempts have been made over the years to create an immersive version of Dickensland and attract the paying public. By and large these have either not got past the planning stage or have not proved to be commercially viable. They include an 800 acre ‘British Disneyland’ planned by the Mecca Organisation in the early 1970s named ‘Merrie England,’ with a ‘Dickens London’ amongst its star attractions, but the project never came to fruition due to the mid-seventies economic crisis. A Charles Dickens Centre in Rochester owned by the local council did actually open in 1979 but had to be closed in 2004 due to dwindling visitor numbers. Similarly, Chatham’s ‘Dickens World’ opened in 2007 with legitimate claims to be the most immersive experience attempted so far, described in the press as “a painstakingly recreated Victorian London,” although it ultimately failed to turn a profit and closed its doors for good in 2016.
In his summarising chapter Jackson observes that more than 150 years after Dickens’ death, guidebooks and guided tours are still available to show devotees around the localities where he set his novels, although in many cases the actual sites have long since gone. This is particularly true of the slums, many of which have been subject to urban renewal and improvement. The author’s enthusiastic fans, not least his early twentieth-century North American following, were criticised for the obsessiveness with which they pursued anything associated with their hero, so much so that in 1916 one writer was led to protest “I don’t want to look at a pebble that Dickens’ foot may have touched; I am not thrilled by the sight of his bootlaces; and the vision of a pump-handle in a yard he once visited dazzles in vain.” Even the writer’s son, Charles Dickens Jr., had something to say about fans getting too involved with seeking out the reality of Dickensland, describing his father as having raised “so considerable a superstructure on the basis of the original fact as to make it practically unrecognisable.”
For Jackson the peak of touristic Dickens’ London was the early 1900s, a period which coincided with the phenomenon of short silent film documentaries or ‘sketches’ featuring various locations of interest, which now give us a fascinating insight into those places at that time. What Dickens would have made of such artefacts and the numerous explorations of Dickensland that came before and after is anybody’s guess, although as a natural showman who strove to promote his work through public readings so strenuous in their execution that they severely affected his health, he may not have been averse to Dickensland and might even have encouraged it. In any case Jackson’s book is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the cultural afterlife of Charles Dickens’ achievements in the public imagination.--Mark Jones