The 7th February 1812 saw the birth of a man many consider to be the greatest ever British novelist: Charles Dickens. His work draws the definitive picture of 19th century London: Energy, industry and the ambition of Empire, alongside grinding poverty, deprivation and cruelty. Fifteen massive novels, hundreds of stories and articles, and tireless journeys to recite his works and campaign for social improvements, characterise his exhausting life story.
2012 is the bicentenary of his birth, which is being marked by the Museum of London (www.museumoflondon.org) with a special exhibition. It celebrates Dickens’ relationship with London. A fascinating and well captioned collection of paintings, clothes, household objects, pub signs and manuscripts illustrate both the noble and everyday aspects of Dickens’ life. A cell door from Newgate prison reminds us that Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt. Dickens himself escaped poverty and a neatly written ledger from Coutts Bank shows his modest expenditure month by month. Amongst the many manuscripts is the opening chapter of Bleak House. Its dense scribble, amendments and crossings-out make you wonder how any typesetter could reproduce his prose accurately.
Above all, you get a vivid picture of 19th century London, then the largest and most overcrowded city in the world. Charles Dickens was its chronicler. In Dombey and Son, a character wonders at all the people who move to the city in the hope of improving their lives:
“Day after day, such travellers crept past, but always, as she thought, in one direction – always towards the town. Swallowed up in one phase or other of its immensity, towards which they seemed impelled by a desperate fascination, they never returned. Food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice, and death, – they passed on to the monster, roaring in the distance, and were lost.”
The exhibition runs until the 10th June and entry costs £8 for adults and £7 for concessions. If you book in advance you save £1, an act of prudence of which Charles Dickens would have heartily approved.