Doughty Street is wide, treeless and somewhat desolate. It is lined with tall, 19th century terraced houses – grand homes, no doubt, in a better past, but now chopped up into poky flats and modest offices. For Sale and For Lease signs in curtainless, fluorescent-lit windows and narrow front gardens speak of a changing present and hint at an uncertain future. 1953
The Dickens House and Museum, at number 48 Doughty Street was rescued from demolition by the Dickens Fellowship in 1922. It is blessedly intact and beautifully preserved and restored, true to both its Georgian style and its original function as Dickens’ family home and workplace. Thick lace curtains hang at its windows and boxed geraniums bloom on their sills. Only a discreet plaque on the plain façade tells us that this is the Charles Dickens Museum. The front door is closed but a small sign welcomes visitors and invites them to ring the bell and enter.
Dickens moved to this house in 1837, at the age of twenty-five, soon after his marriage to Catherine Hogarth and just as he was beginning to taste his first success as a writer. The two years he spent here were full. He completed Pickwick Papers, wrote Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby and began Barnaby Rudge. His first two children were born here and his sister-in-law, Mary who was the inspiration for many of his heroines, including Little Nell of The Old Curiousity Shop, died here. 48 Doughty Street was also the scene of frequent literary dinner parties.
The four floors of the Dickens House include authentic Victorian rooms, like the bedroom, the drawing room and the laundry, as well as a model of the Dingley Dell kitchen from the Pickwick papers. There is a beautiful collection of original furniture, including the rosewood drawing room sideboard and table used by the Dickens family. The velvet covered desk, designed by Dickens himself, which accompanied him on all his reading tours, sits in pride of place. The author’s original manuscripts, personal papers, signed letters and the annotated books used for his dramatic productions are on display. The walls are hung with Dickens family portraits by notable contemporary painters. There is a family tree and fascinating little accounts of the Dickens’ children’s final destinies. Two very poignant items in the display are, firstly, the grille, souvenired by Dickens from Marshalsea Prison, where his family was sentenced to a year’s incarceration for debt and secondly the cardboard plaque which bears a reflection from the author on his “sentence” to work in the blacking, or ink, factory at the age of nine.
The Museum also houses a library, which includes many books used by Dickens himself as well as reading and research rooms.
There were only two three people at the Charles Dickens House the day I visited. I wandered from floor to floor and from room to room, in relative solitude, lost among the treasures and steeped in the atmosphere of the place. I gazed down at the garden and browsed in the library. I walked in Mr Dickens world.
The Charles Dickens House is well worth a visit, particularly for those who know and love his work. But even for those who don’t, this house is alive with great stories and full of Victorian treasures. The Charles Dickens House is open from Monday to Saturday, from 10a.m. to 5p.m. Entry is 3.50, 2.50 or 1.50 pounds.