5 things I learned in the Charles Dickens Museum

I’m a huge Charles Dickens fan. This year only I’ve read The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities (okay, and an easy Catalan version of A Christmas Carol, let’s count that one, too). I love the juicy and vivid language that Dickens uses in his novels. How can a man develop such a vast, diverse vocabulary? It always astonishes me. I also adore the kind of mild irony that Dickens is an unquestionable master of; seldom is he sarcastic towards his characters, I would rather say that he usually comments on their trials and tribulations with a warm, fatherly smile on his face. He is so compassionate and tender about every human being that appears in his novels, no matter if he or she is a thief, a swindler, or an escaped prisoner. Moreover, Dickens is one of those authors whose writing triggers a kind of multisensory reaction. Every time Dickens’s heroes would celebrate Christmas dinner, or feast in a roadside inn, I couldn’t help getting terribly hungry, and I would end up fetching myself a chunky slice of bread with butter generously spread all over it. That’s what I call the power of literature.

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There is a particular reason for this lengthy preface — I’d like to introduce you to a very special place I visited during my short trip to London: the Charles Dickens Museum. Located in a beautiful Georgian house at 48 Doughty Street (in the very heart of the London Borough of Camden), it is a place to which Dickens himself referred as “My house in town”. It was there that he moved in after getting married to his wife, Catherine, it was there that his eldest daughters were born; finally, it was there that some of his most remarkable novels, including Oliver Twist, were written. There are 5 things I discovered during my short visit at 48 Doughty Street that I would like to share with you, hoping to intrigue you enough to make sure that you visit this enchanting place while you’re in London!

#1 Charles Dickens had gone through traumatising experience as a kid

I didn’t know much about the early life of Dickens prior to my visit to the museum. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that as a twelve-year-old kid Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory, after his father and the rest of the family had been imprisoned for debts! This experience left Charles deeply traumatised, and hence the motifs of incarceration and orphanhood are so often invoked in his novels.

#2 hedgehogs were popular inhabitants of Victorian kitchens

Did you know that…?

Hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects, as there was a constant war against bugs.

A couple of years ago, during my visit to the open-air museum in Sanok (the biggest one in Poland), I learned that some of the wealthier farmers and landowners would keep guinea pigs at home, as apparently, their presence deters other rodents. But hedgehogs? I had no idea!

#3 Dickens’s wife wrote a widely popular cookbook under a pen-name

Catherine Dickens, née Hogarth, spent most of her life in the shadow of her famous husband. Who knew that she was a tremendous cook, and she even wrote a celebrated cookbook “What shall we have for dinner?” under the pseudonym of Lady Maria Clutterbuck? The book was a big success, as it ran up to 5 editions in 9 years after it had been published for the first time in 1851. Thanks to the Google Books project, you can download the full version of the original book here: click

 

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an excerpt from A Christmas Carol as presented on the walls of the Servants’ Bedroom

 

#4 the copper in the washhouse was used to cook Christmas pudding

The washhouse was one of the most important places of a Victorian house, as many of the regular household duties were carried out there. In the corner of the room, there is a huge, wood-fired copper, usually used for heating water and washing linen and clothes. However, there was a particular time of the year when the copper would be given a somewhat surprising function: steaming Christmas puddings.

Dickens describes such a scene in A Christmas Carol where Mrs. Cratchit emerges from the washhouse with the Christmas pudding for her family.

#5 Dickens had a great esteem for the serving class

Servants played an immensely important role in Dickens’s novels. No matter if you take Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers, or Miss Pross from A Tale of Two Cities as an example — the servants are pretty much always ones of the most fearless, loyal, and colorful personages of Dickens’s stories. In fact, Dickens himself was related by blood with the servant class, as his paternal grandparents were servants in a country home.


Those curios are just a few of many fascinating facts you can learn during your visit to the Charles Dickens Museum. It is a wonderful, warm, homey place, with friendly staff and beautifully constructed narration. I highly recommend that you indulge yourself and spend a couple of lazy hours there. No rush. To cherish your time there properly, make sure that you pay a visit to the museum cafe, as well as to the museum shop, where a thoughtfully prepared selection of books and souvenirs can be found. I treated myself with a couple of postcards and a souvenir Guide Book, which was a huge help for me to write this post. All the quotations mentioned above are taken from this very book. 

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