Every so often, a writer emerges whose literary musings describe contemporary life better than any other. In Queen Victoria’s reign that scribe was Charles Dickens. Not only was Dickens immensely popular during his own lifetime but, over a century later, it is still Dickens’ stories, letters and essays that bring Victorian London to life.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, but moved to London permanently 10 years later. The Dickens family was not comfortably off. Eventually, his father was sent to debtors’ jail at Marshalsea Prison in Southwark (of which a fragment of wall can still be seen in Borough). So, at 12 years old, Charles left school for the first time and went out to work.
The Dickens family lived in Camden Town, later to be the home of the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol, the Micawbers in David Copperfield and Polly Toodles’ family in Dombey and Son. But the young Dickens moved to live near his father’s prison, visiting him regularly and getting to know other debtor families. Later, when he turned his hand to writing, his experiences would form the foundation for Little Dorrit, which was set in Marshalsea Prison. The horrors of prison as seen through young eyes also informed his second novel – Oliver Twist – in which young Oliver visits Fagan in Newgate Prison.
Victorian London was notorious for its prisons, and prison became a recurring theme for Dickens. So Pickwick was incarcerated in Fleet Prison in Pickwick Papers and the Kings Bench Prison housed Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. Dickens’ observations of the wild, baying crowds at executions at Newgate and Horsemonger Lane gaols were captured in Barnaby Rudge and a letter to the Morning Chronicle, respectively.
Thankfully, many of the aspects of Victorian London that Dickens immortalised have disappeared, such as the pitiless conditions in the workhouses famously woven into Oliver Twist. The noisy, heaving livestock market at Smithfield is described in less than flattering terms in both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, even though it was moved during Dickens’ lifetime. And the numerous, enormous heaps of refuse that grew around London were recorded for posterity in Our Mutual Friend.
Even London’s weather made it into Dickens' novels. For example, the awful Victorian London fog, which in 1873 was so bad that 19 pedestrians died from walking into the Thames and other bodies of water, makes an appearance in Bleak House. But there are many places that Dickens wrote about which still exist. These include numerous churches and bridges, Fleet Street and the surrounding area, Covent Garden, the Bank of England, British Museum, Guildhall, Monument, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
So popular was Dickens that his monthly publications could sell 50,000 copies and after he died in 1870, 4.24 million copies of his books were sold in the next 12 years. You can find out more about Dickens’ London at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, the only surviving London home of the quintessential Victorian author.
...in the most memorable, engaging and complex realisation of London and the Londoner ever to get into print, Dickens endowed his contemporaries and their successors with an insatiable appetite for exploring his London. ”Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century
Did you know?
You can pay tribute to Charles Dickens at Westminster Abbey where he is buried in Poets Corner