diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 23, 2012

Charles Dickens Museum
Location: 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX [map]
Lived here: 1837-1839
Open: 10:00-17:00 (except Mondays)
Admission: £8 (£4 children)
Website: www.dickensmuseum.com (& on Twitter)

Charles Dickens lived in more than a dozen houses during his life, many of them in London, only one of which still stands. That's his newlywed home in Bloomsbury, a Georgian terrace, which the great man described as follows:
"It was a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear. It was located just north of Gray's Inn ... a genteel private street with a lodge at each end and gates that were closed at night by a porter in a gold-laced hat and a mulberry-coloured coat with the Doughty arms on its buttons."
Doughty Street's no longer gated but still well-to-do, and currently blessed by a fine selection of Christmas wreaths tied to various front doors. Charles lived in one of the houses with a blue plaque - this one of the London County Council's originals - but you won't be entering through his front door. The house nextdoor has been acquired as part of a major redevelopment this year, and this now contains all the visitor facilities so that number 48 can be displayed as was. It seemed strange for London's only museum of Dickensiana to have closed during the year of his bicentenary, but the house reopened a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the end result is a visible improvement.

Each visitor receives a printed guide, designed in the format of one of Dickens' "monthly parts", which sets the scene for each of the dozen rooms. Ground floor first, via the entrance hall, where some of Charles' everyday pocketfodder has been arranged on a table beneath the clock. The "as lived in" vibe continues in the dining room, which is laid out for a meal with friends. Be aware that a lot of the furniture in the house isn't from Doughty Street, it's from Dickens' final home at Gad's Hill, but the sideboard and samovar here are originals. Downstairs, by contrast, is a little more ordinary. The kitchen looks like any Victorian basement kitchen, with no real Dickensiana of note, and the wine cellar is locked round the side of the scullery where you can't really see it.

Follow the shadow of Dickens up the stairs, to the finest room in the house - the Drawing Room. The voice of Simon Callow booms out as you enter, not to tell you biographical facts but to narrate a couple of favourite passages. One is from Pickwick Papers, a 20-parter completed while Dickens was living here, along with the end of Oliver Twist and all of Nicholas Nickleby. In this room is the reading desk that Charles took around the country when giving performances to his fans, while nextdoor in the study is his writing desk from Gad's Hill on which The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never finished.

Up again to the bedrooms, one the marital suite, the other occupied by Charles's 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary. She tragically died six weeks after the family moved in, an event which affected Charles deeply and which he often referenced in his work. There are several artworks on the walls, but it's very difficult to read the captions underneath because the museum has chosen to etch them on matt metal - elegant, but entirely impractical. The two attic rooms were the preserve of Dickens' servants so they've been used as exhibition spaces rather than recreations. One's all text, while the other includes a metal grille from the Marshalsea Prison where Charles's father was imprisoned. Neither room is especially exhibit-dense, but I guess this allows room for future expansion.

The tour then steps through to number 49 Doughty Street, where there's a timeline of Charles's life (and a lift to allow less healthy visitors the opportunity to visit the upper floors). A reading area is provided where you can flick through some of the great man's many published works, although you almost certainly won't, while another room contains a handful of costumes from the just-released Hollywood version of Great Expectations. And yes, of course there's a cafe, located in a ground floor annexe, which you might use to push your visit over the 60-minute mark.

A fine restoration, all told, evoking the presence of Dickens rather than being a mere storehouse of his stuff. The place is done up with period Christmas decorations at the moment, as an added treat, and for very good reason. The museum will be opening every day over the Christmas period, including the big day itself, with live readings, mulled wine and mince pies for visitors. Don't rush, the £18 tickets have already sold out, but it's business as usual from Thursday onwards (and today).

see also...
» Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, Portsmouth
» my week of bicentenary posts from February

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