Dickens and London

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Dickens and London
© V&A Images
Charles Dickens in his study 1859 by William Powell Frith, London

How often have you stood in front of a wall caption at an exhibition, trying to absorb the information yet unable to persuade your brain to work? You read and re-read the carefully composed and condensed text but absolutely nothing sinks in. It s a common phenomenon ≠ but not one you re likely to experience at Dickens and London because the Museum of London has drafted in an expert more than capable of grabbing your attention. Getting Dickens the writer to do the honours for this show about Dickens the Londoner was a very smart move.

The exhibition opens with an impressionistic space in which video projections and sound combine to capture something of the way Dickens worked. He was an insomniac, in the habit of roaming the streets of London through the night, absorbing material for his stories. With a near-photographic memory, Dickens would plot the tales minutely in his head. His ear for the nuances of speech was also acute and the voices he heard on his nocturnal rambles are accurately reflected in his writing.

Thereafter, the show proceeds thematically. Contemporaneous paintings and artefacts some on loan but many from the museum s own collection draw parallels between Dickens's life, his writing and the London he knew.

The desk and chair Dickens used towards the end of his life are here, along with his account book, so vast it looks today like a comedy prop but it s a poignant reminder of the importance of balancing the books in an era when the threat of debtors' prison loomed large for those whose financial affairs foundered. And the symbolism of that evidence of careful financial accounting in Dickens's own life can't be overstated.

His father's stay in the Marshalsea, a debtors' prison in Southwark, put an abrupt end to the 12-year-old's childhood. The misery of being sent to work in the blacking warehouse (and, at the suggestion of his mother, being left there even when his father's fortunes improved) was intense. Dickens fictionalised the factory as Murdstone and Grindby's warehouse in 'David Copperfield' but he could not exorcise the awfulness of that experience. The 'Home and Hearth' section of the exhibition alludes to some of the contradictions in Dickens, a man who adored the company of children while they were young, yet became distant once they entered their teens.

Luke Fildes's painting, 'Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward', reflects Dickens's lifelong empathy with the plight of Londoners in the most wretched circumstances. When, in 1874, the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was accompanied by a quotation from a letter in which Dickens had described the 'dumb, wet, silent horrors' he had witnessed waiting outside the entrance to Whitechapel Workhouse.

Another work that perfectly illustrates the London Dickens described so vividly is 'Funeral Mutes' by Robert William Buss. A section in the exhibition devoted to the Victorian cult of mourning reminds us that, while in the employ of an undertaker, Oliver Twist worked as a mute for children's funerals, leading mournful processions in a hat-band reaching down to his knees, to the indescribable admiration and emotion of all the mothers in the town.

Embracing the new developments that stood in such stark contrast to the deprivation he witnessed in the lives of the Londoners who fuelled his fiction and journalism, Dickens travelled by steam train to give public readings, crossed the Atlantic on a steamship for his first reading tour in the States and made regular use of the Penny Post to send endless letters (which he instructed the recipients to destroy, although they often didn t comply). On loan from the V&A is Charles Frith's 1859 portrait of the writer in his study, which the artist was rather pleased with. Dickens, though, reckoned it made him look a bit smug and perhaps it does – his celebrity was probably grounds for a bit of smugness.

His handwriting wasn't, though. Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London and lead curator for the Dickens show, who has had time to get his eye in, says he can decipher Dickens's tricky inky marks but most visitors, while relishing the treat of eyeballing some of Dickens's original manuscripts, turn with relief to the accompanying corrected proofs to find out what they actually say.

The museum has taken the opportunity to commission a new graphic novel app for iPad or iPhone. Dickens: Dark London (illustrated by David Foldari and narrated by 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' actor Mark Strong), which, like Dickens's novels, will be released in monthly instalments (the first is free; subsequent ones will cost £1.49 each). Bonus material includes illustrated excerpts from Dickens's works.

The exhibition closes with another contemporary commission, inspired by the long tramps through the London night that fired Dickens's imagination. William Raban's 19-minute documentary film, 'The Houseless Shadow', has as its soundtrack a reading of Dickens's essay 'Night Walks', about the people, places and thoughts the writer encountered as he walked from dusk to dawn through a London night. Dickens's writing emerges as remarkably contemporary, and the troubles of the city, as documented by Raban, distressingly unchanged.

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