Ever wanted to take a look into the homes of the rich and famous? Well, here’s your chance to snoop around the London house of one of the most novelists of all times! During your visit to the Charles Dickens Museum in London you’ll get an intimate look into the life of this celebrated writer whose works and iconic characters are still a huge influence on today’s language and popular culture 150 years after his death.
Who was Charles Dickens?
Even if you’re not familiar with the name Charles Dickens, I’m sure you’ve heard of at least one of his books. Being referred to as the ‘man who invented Christmas’, Charles Dickens is the author of world-famous novels such as A Christmas Carol.
Published in 1843, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come has become inseparable from Christmas.
Fortunately, there are no ghosts at his former London home where he and his family lived from 1837 till 1839. Having been saved from demolition and opened as a museum in 1925, it is now the only surviving Charles Dickens house in London.
Yet, despite being of such historical significance, it’s not a well-known tourist destination. It therefore feels like a secret London gem worth visting.
Charles Dickens’s rags to riches story
Famed for his detailed depictions of Victorian London, Charles Dickens’s novels feature characters from all layers of society. His works are therefore not only literary treasures in themselves, but also provide a great insight in the daily lives of Londoners during the 19th century.
Retrace Charles Dickens’s steps towards the East-end of London as described in my self-guided walk along secret London landmarks.
Often capturing the bleak and crowded streets of London, he also drew from his own life experience. Whilst Charles Dickens might have died a famous and wealthy man, he was extremely poor during his early life.
When he was only 12 years old, Charles Dickens was forced to work in a factory under harsh circumstances after his father was sent to prison. Growing up in poverty, I can imagine Dickens’s success story was quite an exception at the time. That to me, made the visit to his former home even more special.
My personal highlight was stepping inside his study, realising some of the most influential novels in English literature had been written at the very desk that still sits there today.
Charles Dickens in Victorian London
It might not be as glamorous as the flashy celebrity homes seen on MTV Cribs, but I always find it very exciting to visit a house of a famous historical person. Especially, when it’s the home of an influential artist or writer where they’ve actually created their masterpieces.
Besides being the place where some of the most famous literary works have been penned down, the Charles Dickens Museum also gives its visitors a window into the past. Housing over 100,000 items including personal items, it’s fascinating to see how well-to-do families would have lived in Victorian London.
Want to see the home of another significant British writer? Then visit Strawberry Hill House, a remarkable London ‘castle’ and the birthplace of Gothic fiction!
Fitted with luxuries as a wine cellar and typical household items found in Victorian houses, such as the so-called ‘wash-house copper’ (more about this in a minute), I wonder what it would have been like to live there at the time. Thanks to the re-created rooms, you can get an idea of what the house might’ve looked like during the days of Charles Dickens.
Below you see the wash-house copper I mentioned earlier. While it seems so primitive to me now, it was commonly used as a source of hot water during Victorian times.
Within the bricked up space you see in the right-hand corner, would be a large copper bowl filled with water. A fire underneath the bowl would ensure a large supply of boiling water.
Imagine washing your clothing in it, standing over the heat, stirring the laundry with a large wooden stick as the Victorians did. Let’s count ourselves lucky for having access to modern washing machines that do the hard work for us!
I do appreciate the other, much more satisfying use of these wash coppers though. Because, once a year they would be used to boil Christmas puddings in. A tradition that’s also described in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol:
“… the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.”
An intimate peek into the life of Charles Dickens
Besides manuscripts, books, furniture and ‘ancient’ appliances, the Charles Dickens Museum also offers an intimate peek into the life of the author by displaying smaller personal items. It’s these details that made my visit so memorable.
Take this beautiful turquoise ring for example. This was actually the engagement ring Charles gave to this wife Catherine. It also made a subtle appearance in his novel David Copperfield when David seeks out a ‘pretty little toy, with its blue stones’ for Dora.
It was actually shortly after their wedding in 1836, that Catherine and Charles moved to their home which now houses the Charles Dickens Museum.
Having had ten children together, their happiness unfortunately didn’t last and the couple separated in 1858. Their divorce is steeped in intrigue as it turned out that Mr Dickens wasn’t quite the gentleman during this whole ordeal.
Describing his wife as mentally unbalanced, he was secretly eager to dump Catherine in favour of actress Ellen Ternan who was nearly thirty years his junior. Speaking of typical celebrity behaviour!
He got his wish when Catherine accidentally discovered the bracelet Charles had bought as a present for his mistress. But instead of being sent to the latter, it was delivered to his own home address and discovered by his wife! (Was the delivery company the predecessor of Hermes I wonder?)
This plot twist sounds like your average soap opera, but unfortunately for Catherine, this was real life. She moved out of their family home, taking only their oldest son with her, and leaving their other nine children to live with their father.
The exact nature of Charles’s relationship with Ellen has never been made entirely clear, partially because all evidence of it was destroyed. But it’s believed they frequently travelled together and that he based several of his female fictional characters on her.
Charles Dickens’s death
Charles Dickens suffered from poor health during the last ten years of his life. When he died in 1870 from a stroke, it was seen as a national tragedy. Perceived as one of the greatest British authors of all time, he was laid to rest in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
In the photo below you see some unique items connected to Dickens’s death. At the very bottom you see a rose that was placed on his grave. Next to it, there’s a lock of his hair. And in the right-hand corner you can see the last page of his fifteenth novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
He died in the middle of his writing process, leaving this promising mystery murder story unfinished. This page therefore holds the very last words ever written by Charles Dickens.
In contrast to Dickens’s final words, the display shown in the photo below holds a small letter (at the top) which is known as the earliest surviving piece of writing by Charles Dickens.
Next to the note, you can see a miniature painted by his aunt when he was 18 years old. It’s one of the oldest remaining portraits of Charles Dickens, an influential author in so many aspects. Not only for his literary legacy, but also for his efforts to effect social change. Because, by highlighting the grim living and working conditions in Victorian society, his widely read novels and articles led to great social reform, especially improving the lives of poor children, giving them the chance of a better life, unlike his younger self.
How to visit the Charles Dickens museum
The Charles Dickens Museum is located at 48 Doughty Street
London, WC1N 2LX.
The closest stations are: Russell Square Tube station (10-minute walk), Chancery Lane Tube station (10-minute walk), Holborn Tube station (13-minute walk), Farringdon station (15-minute walk) and St Pancras / Kings Cross (20-minute walk).
For opening times, accessibility, ticket information and special events, please refer to the museum website: Charles Dickens Museum.
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