Nowadays, most people’s encounter with Charles Dickens is probably not a voluntary one. I first had to read him in college, when Bleak House was assigned for a class in 19th century fiction. I don’t know that I would have liked Bleak House if I’d done it like a lot of my college reading–flipping through at lightning speed between chemistry problem sets–but my brilliant professor gave us the reading list at the end of spring term, so we had all summer to read the books. I loved him then and still do.
In his day, Charles Dickens was a star. People waited anxiously for the next episode of his serialized novels. He was so popular, and such a good performer, that he went on tours, reading his work aloud to rapt audiences.
Last summer I got to visit the Charles Dickens Museum. It’s in the house in London where he lived from 1837-1839. He moved to this house a year after marrying Catherine Hogarth, and two of the couple’s 10 children were born here. It was early in his career; his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was coming out in weekly installments when they moved in. Here he worked on Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Part of the reason I like him is his activism. His novels often focused on the difficulties of life for common people. He was an activist in the real world, too. In 1845, he wrote to the editor of the Times about attending a public execution, arguing for ending the practice of killing criminals in front of an audience. “I believe that a sight so conceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man,” he wrote. He describes vividly the screeching and singing of the children, who had claimed the best spots by midnight, and the delight of the crowd in a person’s death.
But the main reason I like to read him is that he’s fun. Just look at the first few sentences of Bleak House.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
I’m also going to claim him as a science writer. Dickens started out as a journalist and, in the 1850s, he edited a weekly magazine called Household Words. The museum had a bound volume of the magazine open to part of a story about London’s water supply. He describes going to the place where water is drawn out of the Thames and asking for a sample in a glass. He asks an engineer about particulate matter and gets into a discussion of filtration and sources of contamination. Science!
The museum says he was the first famous author to read his work for the public. Thomas Carlyle wrote that Dickens carried “an entire theatre company…under one hat,” the museum label says. He’d read scenes from books, doing voices of the different characters and playing up the humor and entertainment.
The special desk he designed for his public readings is on display, too. On top is this copy of Nicholas Nickleby (left), marked up in his own handwriting.
The museum is furnished more or less as it would have been in Dickens’s time, with bedrooms and all. Fun fact I learned in the kitchen: Victorians sometimes kept a hedgehog in the kitchen to eat bugs. Who knew?