Demystifying Dickens in a new millennium

Oliver Twist, that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and has long influenced generations worldwide, is the subject of a unique walking tour — from the London house where Charles Dickens wrote the classic

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 8 Jul 2021, 10:42 PM

Few capitals preserve, cherish and celebrate their history as London does. The past is ubiquitous in the modern present, with many houses, buildings and other structures retaining their ancient exteriors and looks, even while updating the interiors to reflect new, easy ways of living as they developed over the centuries. The quiet, tree-lined Doughty Street, located near Russell Square and the British Museum, is one such area that appears frozen in time, with Georgian houses today bearing the same exteriors as when built between 1790 and the 1840s. Enter the street’s house number 48 and you literally step back in time to the 19th century.

It was the family home of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the iconic writer whose work has been one of the major formative influences on generations of people across the globe. It was here, after moving in with his young family in 1837, that he wrote Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby and first achieved international fame as one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Its rooms have been restored to exactly reflect domestic life at the time, containing thousands of items the family used: intact, just as they were, are items in Dickens’ study, including his writing desk; handwritten drafts; bedrooms; servants’ quarters; dining room with the same furniture, tableware, portraits, marble busts, china ornaments and paintings. The mahogany hall clock owned by Dickens still chimes to the hour just as he used to hear it when he was busy writing, lending a timeless aura to the 19th century environs.

Now managed by a charity organisation, the house has been turned into a museum, visited by Dickens fans from across the globe. The vast majority of visitors last Sunday were from south-east Asian countries, reflecting the influence of the writer’s works that have been translated into hundreds of global languages and adapted for television, theatre and screen. A new initiative is an exhibition (until October 17) titled ‘More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City’, which celebrates Dickens’ most popular tale Oliver Twist, written almost two centuries ago and published as a series from 1837 to 1839 in the Bentley’s Miscellany magazine. Also offered is a self-guided walking audio tour to uncover the Bloomsbury that Dickens would have known. The hour-long tour includes readings by Ollie Dickens (the great-great-great grandson of the writer); it begins from 48 Doughty Street and ends in Bloomsbury Square by the British Museum. The tour covers nearby locations that inspired Dickens and figured in his writings: such as Clerkenwell Green, Saffron Hill, Field Lane, Hatton Garden and Grays’ Inn Road.

Says curator Louisa Price: “After an extraordinary year and a period of unprecedented closure for the museum, we wanted a special exhibition that drew out the very best from our collection and that celebrated Dickens’s connections to our neighbourhood. Oliver Twist is our local story: it was written here at 48 Doughty Street, where the museum is located, and Dickens was inspired by the people, places and things he saw in the surrounding streets. We are fortunate to have a rich collection of personal items and rare literary treasures that help us tell the story of how the great novelist wrote his most popular story. Because Oliver Twist is such an excellent example of the genius of Dickens’s storytelling, it gave us ample opportunity to connect with our local community; inviting them to participate in workshops and then putting the fruits of these in the exhibition as well. We added the walking tour to this exhibition to encourage our visitors to explore the local area and understand that incredible and unique connection between Dickens’ writing and the streets of London.”

Living out the book’s ambience

While at Doughty Street, Dickens, then a young, up-and-coming writer, initially wrote under the nickname ‘Boz’, spending many hours wandering the streets of London, observing all he saw and experienced while drawing inspiration from the colourful places and people he encountered. On the walking tour, you follow in his footsteps as he wandered the streets; explore the area long associated with political protest where Oliver is accused of robbing Mr Brownlow as he browses at a bookstall; walk the streets which once housed some of the worst slums in London and see where Dickens set Fagin’s den of thieves; discover London’s criminal underbelly of pickpockets, prostitutes and murderers, and see the sites of courts, prisons and executions, all of which Dickens saw and wrote about in the classic. The exhibition and tour help rediscover how the society and politics of Dickens’ London influenced Oliver Twist and made him one of the leading social reformers of Victorian England.

Ollie Dickens, an actor, revealed a less-known facet about his famous ancestor to The Independent: “A lot of people don’t know, but Dickens didn’t want to be a writer, he wanted to be an actor. He had an audition somewhere like Drury Lane, but on the day, he was very ill and couldn’t do it. By the next time, he’d already become a famous writer... but he kept doing performances. In Tavistock House (Dickens’ house from 1851 to 1860), he converted a room where he would put on plays for family and friends. If I did inherit any genes — and I certainly didn’t inherit any writing genes, I was terrible at English at school — hopefully I’ve got some of his acting genes.”

Oliver Twist, a critique of the 1834 Poor Law that aimed to reduce the cost of poor relief and remove poverty from the streets, painted a picture of London that included congested slums as well as leafy middle class suburbs, showing Londoners some parts of their city they did not know. But despite its bleak moments, the novel has long been hailed as a potent mix of humorous and tragic scenes, and characters such as innocent Oliver, lovable rogue The Artful Dodger and ‘tart with a heart’ Nancy. As a reviewer observed in 1839: “Life in London as revealed in the pages of Boz, opens a new world to thousands bred and born in the same city, whose palaces overshadow their cellars — for the one half of mankind lives without knowing how the other half dies.” Archives show that the first readers of the novel were struck by Dickens’ prolific writing, and depiction of crime and poverty; another reviewer wrote in The Quarterly Review in October 1837: “The fact is, Mr Dickens writes too often and too fast… If he persists much longer in this course, it requires no gift of prophesy to foretell his fate — he has risen like a rocket, and he will come down like a stick.”

Then and now: a tale of two Londons

Written at a time when literacy in England was low and reading aloud to groups of people in public places was common, Oliver Twist was symbolic of the era of print, equated by academic Neil Postman with a culture of rational argument, which faced some challenge with the development of entertainment-oriented new media such as television. Internet and social media may have further enhanced the challenge, offering a wider array for entertainment and distraction, particularly to the millennials, also reflected in their mixed view about Dickens and his books. It remains one of the most popular fiction books in Britain (and elsewhere), widely presented as plays in schools and elsewhere, but has a less passionate engagement than during the time when print was one of the main sources of knowledge, awareness and amusement.

Says Bristol-based post-graduate student P. Prabhakara, who studied Oliver Twist in school and acted in (one of) its dramatic adaptation: “The play was fun, I was one of the Londoners, wearing a tattered jumper and a worn-out hat. We read and studied the book in school, but yes, neither I nor my friends go out of our way to find books by Dickens to read. Not sure if I would travel to London just to see the places mentioned in the book. There are just so many more exciting things to do, to engage with. This is not a comment on Dickens, but generally perhaps about the dwindling attraction of the physicality of buying, holding and reading books. Even when books are bought on Kindle, how many are actually read in full? I am not very aware of other Dickens books, beyond Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers. The English and words used in his books are also different, takes a while to fully understand, but I can see why my parents’ generation is so engrossed with his books.”

But London-based secondary school student Mähēk Sharma displays closer engagement and awareness of the novel’s 19th century context: “England was a hard place to live in and as Dickens describes the downtrodden areas, we get to know the many struggles of informal living and working. This is in contrast to England today, because we see diversity amongst the population, as well as an increase in all-round development. London today is open to all with more people enjoying their lives compared to the earlier inequalities. Young people now are less aware of the outside world whereas Dickens has described many children less sheltered from the outside world. There was no escape from the corruption and power. Young people were often exploited for work such as chimney cleaning or as housemaids. But now, most children are safer than ever, we are lucky to have a developed social system that cares about today’s younger generation. As the book shows, children used to be recruited into gangs. There is an increase in the number of gang violence today, but it is nothing compared to England during the industrial revolution.”

At 48 Doughty Street, museum official Jordan Evans is aware of the challenges millennials face while engaging with Dickens. He notes that for those less prepared for the writer’s style and writing, opening one of his large books can be a bit overwhelming, filled as they are with words and phrases no longer in use: “In fact, what most people don’t realise is that Dickens — certainly in his early works such as The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist — did not set out to publish complete novels in their entirety. He actually published them section by section in various newspapers and magazines. Dickens was also writing in a way which was designed to be read out loud. It’s worth remembering that in 1836, when the first Dickens stories began to appear, a huge chunk of the British population was illiterate. Stories from the newspapers and magazines would be read out in pubs, with families around the fire, among friend groups or in the many coffee shops and gin palaces which were dotted around London. What he created time and time again was less a simple book, but rather something which was more like a novel, a movie and a pantomime, all rolled into one. But knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to read. The long sentences, Victorian cultural references and strange ways of speaking can turn the exercise of reading a Dickens novel into a bit of a chore.”

Evans offers a list of handy tips for millennials to help engage with Dickens: start with an easy one, for example, A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist; cheat: Google various characters before you start reading a book; keep your phone on you: his books can be full of cultural references and phrases which are not familiar in 2021, sometimes it’s worth having your phone or computer near you so that you can quickly look up something which isn’t clear to you; take your time: Dickens’ novels were created to fill the time in the evening, think of each chapter as an episode of your favourite TV programme; read out aloud: most of Dickens’s work was designed to be read out, you’d be surprised how often reading out loud instead of in your mind can really help you follow what is going on; do the accents mentioned in the books; and use an audio book: since Dickens wrote his stories with the intention that they would be read out loud, so in many ways an audio book is quite in tune with how Dickens intended his stories to be read.

He adds: “The wonderful thing about audio books is that they really bring out the conversational and witty side of Dickens’s writing, and make the whole experience easier and more understandable. The added bonus is that it means you can listen to a novel while popping the tea on.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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