When in London, I always try to visit some favorite places and some new sites. This past trip several people had mentioned the newly reopened Charles Dickens Museum, and raved about its new interpretation. I’d never seen the house, so I decided to visit 48 Doughty Street, a brick Georgian terraced house occupied by the young Dickens family for almost three years (1837-1839). As the family grew in size and his wealth increased, Dickens moved on from this starter house to bigger houses. While living here, Dickens was on the cusp of worldwide fame. He wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and part of the Pickwick Papers.
Admittedly I did not know a lot about Dickens. I’d read some of his work, but didn’t know his life story. I wanted some insight into the life and times of one of the world’s most famous writers. While the home focused on a short period of time in Dickens’ life, the museum holds one of the most important collections of Dickens artifacts in the world.
The self-guided tour started in the dining room where the table was set for dinner. Place cards around it indicated some of the famous guests who dined in that room. The sounds of horse hooves and carriage wheels on the cobblestones outside, along with clinking dishes, added an audio component that was offered in several rooms in the house, attempting to immerse the visitor into Dickens’s world.
The kitchen in the basement featured hands-on reproductions of appliances. The scullery and wash house nearby showed a copper kettle for laundry, and signage explained that it was also used once a year for Christmas pudding – and was referred to in his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. Some of the fun in touring a writer’s house was that objects on display throughout the place appear in scenes in his various books.
In the drawing room, largest room in the house, Dickens often entertained guests by reading and performing his stories. I learned Dickens was the first famous author to give public readings of his work. At other times Dickens might sit in the room, surrounded by guests, yet tuning them out and engrossed in writing. Images on display around the room showed the room’s original furniture, including his reading desk, seen in various portraits and photographs over the years.
To help visitors connect with Dickens’s works, books with “Read Me” printed in large text on the front were scattered throughout the house. Visitors could pick up a book and read about some of his colorful characters.
A fascinating display in the third floor nursery showed the influences from his childhood – the prison grill from the former Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Southwark where his father had been imprisoned, requiring the twelve-year-old Dickens to work in a factory. He was so embarrassed or traumatized by this that he supposedly only ever told two people about it. Yet his experiences from the factory appear throughout his writing. Tragedy also struck in this house when his wife’s sister died in Dickens’s arms at the age of 17 while staying with the family. Her death had a profound influence on him.
I left the house wanting to know more about Dickens and his world, and impressed with the way the museum staff had made me feel as if I’d just visited the famed author —an excellent example for other house museums to emulate.