Of all the writers associated with Bloomsbury, there’s one who stands out above all others (and I know what you’re thinking, but Yr. Humble Chronicler is not talking about himself. But thanks for the thought). I’m talking, of course, about the man Charles Dickens.
Dickens is one of those authors who’s become indelibly associated with London. When you think “Charles Dickens,” the scene that immediately comes to mind is the grimy cityscape of nineteenth-century London with ragged street urchins and fat men in greatcoats with unlikely names. Of course, London was far from the only setting of his books. Still, when you read his work, you get the feeling that this is someone who knows his city. Take, for instance, this passage from A Tale of Two Cities describing Soho Square:
A quieter corner than the corner in which the Doctor lived, was not to be found in London. There was no way through it, and the front windows of the Doctor’s lodgings commanded a pleasant little vista of a street that had a congenial air of retirement on it. There were few buildings then, north of the Oxford-road, and forest trees flourished, and wild flowers grew, and the hawthorn blossomed, in the now vanished fields. As a consequence, country airs circulated in Soho with vigorous freedom, instead of languishing into the parish like stray paupers without a settlement.”
It’s a description that implies a familiarity with the area – we’re asked to directly compare this version of Soho of the eighteenth century with the familiar nineteenth century streets. I’d be curious to know what Dickens would have thought of modern Soho as compared to the nineteenth century one. Maybe he’d use the word “wankers” as so many have been compelled to do.
Of course, Dickens would have been very familiar with the streets of London. As I’ve noted, he resided in Bloomsbury for part of his life, and his first residence there (on Doughty Street, where The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist were written) is now a museum.
In Oliver Twist, when Dickens talks about “the traders who purchase [silk handkerchiefs] from pick pockets” in Holborn, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he was speaking directly from personal experience. Holborn is a short stroll from Bloomsbury, though Dickens had also lived in Holborn prior to Doughty Street.
He later moved to Tavistock House, also in Bloomsbury, which included a small theatre in which he could indulge his love of amateur dramatics (a hobby he would put to good use when he gave his celebrated readings of his work). It was here that he wrote Bleak House, and though the house is no longer visible, its site is marked with a blue plaque, which I’ve been kind enough to depict below. Thank goodness for me.
Dickens no doubt made a number of research trips to nearby Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn for this scathing attack on the British legal system. Chancery Lane itself is described as “the heart of the fog” (literally and metaphorically) and of Lincoln’s Inn Dickens notes that “it is let off in sets of chambers now, and in these shrunken fragments of greatness lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”
If I were to quote every descriptive passage that talks about London in Dickens’ books, I’d be here all night and you’d be really bored. So I’ll just mention here one of his non-literary ventures in Bloomsbury, namely Great Ormond Street Hospital. Dickens was one of the most influential voices in the campaign to build a hospital specifically for impoverished children, and he remained a supporter right up until his death. Indeed, Yr. Humble Chronicler has heard it said that J. M. Barrie’s better-publicised relationship with the hospital was largely influenced by the earlier author’s association.
Actually, if we could just return to Mr D’s literary works for a moment, I have a question. Very near to Great Ormond Street, just off Lamb’s Conduit Street, is this road:
Given Dickens’ proximity to this location, is it ridiculous to suggest that this place was the inspiration for the title of Dombey and Son?
Okay, nearly finished, I promise. One last thing, though. “What the Dickens,” or variants thereof, is a phrase that people immediately assume must owe its existence to Charles. Hence in the Doctor Who episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, Simon Callow as Charles Dickens is heard to exclaim, “What the Shakespeare?” Not so! “Dickens” is actually a venerable euphemism for the Devil, so it’s entirely likely that Dickens himself would have been familiar with the expression.
AND NOW YOU KNOW.