Charles Dickens is synonymous with Christmas, for me at least but I’m sure to many people too and that’s probably because of his masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. When I think of this eminent and distinguished author, images of a bygone Christmas are conjured up in my mind. The story of A Christmas Carol symbolises everything that Christmas should and shouldn’t be from greed and excess very much evident today, to hope and dreams of a better life. It’s about family, friendship and forgiveness, it’s about being charitable, it epitomises Christmas in every sense of the word.
A painting of Charles Dickens.
A Christmas Carol has long been a story that has mesmerised and fascinated me, I think I developed a bit of an obsession about this story that means so much at Christmastime. The cantankerous, decrepit, old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge was really frightening to a child, how could this dark story of bleak, poverty stricken Victorian London have anything to do with happy, joyful, exciting and celebratory Christmas but look deeper and it really does. It’s a story I read to my children every Christmas and a film we watch time and time again. Of course, re-made many times, my favourite must be Disney’s 2009 computer animated version with Jim Carey and Colin Firth.
Jim Carey’s interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge in Disney’s (2009) A ChristmasCarol, my favourite version of Dickens’ classic tale.
But Charles Dickens is so much more than A Christmas Carol and fans of his writing will know that he wrote many, many brilliant classics, to name a few, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, many of which have since been made into films. Such is the spellbinding literary power of this exceptional author’s expressive and vivid words. There is no better place to find out more about this man than a visit to his former home which is now a museum, to be fully immersed in Dickensian London and find out what really inspired him to write A Christmas Carol.
His former home at 48 Doughty Street is the only home that Dickens occupied that remains today. Built around 1805, this was his first house moving here in early part of 1837 in which he lived with his young family for three years. These three years were some of the most important in his life, it’s where he wrote the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, he was still only in his mid- twenties. During this time, he led an active social life surrounding himself with some of the greatest writers and actors of that time. When he moved to Doughty Street, he was relatively unknown but by the time he moved again with his growing family at the end of 1839 to a larger home, his books had made him famous around the world. Dickens’ home at 48 Doughty Street was centrally located enabling him to visit his publishers, go to the theatre and enjoy a safe neighbourhood for his growing family.
Doughtey Street where Dickens lived as it was back in the 1800’s.
The Charles Dickens Museum tells the story of this extraordinary man whose life and stories have captivated people for nearly 200 years. The museum holds the most comprehensive collection relating to Dickens although the museum can only display a fraction at any one time. I’ve visited the museum twice before with my children, always in December as there is so much going on to charm and entertain children, see it as an introduction to the story of A Christmas Carol. I visited the museum again last week to find out exactly what was happening this Christmas. The programme always changes slightly every December but many of the favourites are repeated year after year.
The museum gift shop.
When entering the museum, you really do feel a sense of being transported back to Victorian London especially when visiting the first room of the house which is fully dressed for Christmas. The entrance fee is £9.00 and is paid in what is the museum’s gift shop which as you can imagine is dedicated to all things Dickens and is a book lover’s paradise. You are met by a member of museum staff who are hugely knowledgeable on Dickens and you’re then given a brief introduction to the museum with your complementary guide pamphlet which details how best to explore the house. The house is just as Dickens would have known it, the richness of it expresses his middle-class aspirations.
The first room you encounter is Dickens’ dining room, as mentioned before, it is fully dressed for Christmas however at other times of the year, it depicts the dining room as it would have been all those years ago with Dickens regularly entertaining the Victorian creative community where some of the worlds leading artists, actors, writers and publishers would come to enjoy the hospitality of this rising star. The elegant architectural feature of this Georgian room is exemplified by the the curved room and door which shows great skill and craftsmanship. I was really impressed by the museums’ clever use of Victorian London sounds and noises in the background – the clip- clopping of horses’ hooves on the pavements, the ringing of bells, the chattering of people all helping to evoke a sense of being in Victorian London.
A regular guest at Dickens’ table.
Next is the morning room, again splendidly dressed for Christmas, this room was used much as we use our living rooms today, a place to sit and relax but of course, back then, there were no TV’s, so entertainment was mainly games and conversation. Catherine, Dickens’ wife spent a lot of her time here while Charles was upstairs working in the study. She would write her correspondence, receive morning visitors, give directions to the servants and play with the children. Adorning the walls are paintings of the family, Charles, Catherine and the second of their two children who were born here. Further on is the courtyard and a café selling light lunches, cakes and refreshments, the courtyard is open in spring and summer months, it’s beautiful!
The next floor to visit according to the guide is the basement which is authentically displayed as it would have been in the 1800’s with the pantry, laundry room, scullery and kitchen. I found this room the most fascinating of all perhaps because of my love of cooking, what would it have been like preparing and cooking a meal back then? The kitchen gives you a sense of that because it is laid out as it would have been all those years ago, what I liked most was the basket laden with goods for Catherine Dickens.
The laundry room smelt of damp, a dingy cold room, it must have been torture for the servants and maids looking after the home and the needs of the family, there is so much we take for granted today. The servants operated the whole house from this basement, the kitchen being the hub of the basement which got extremely busy with a large amount of cooking especially when the Dickens family were entertaining. Due to technological advances in the 19th century, much would have changed when Dickens moved out however the museums’ fixtures and fittings remain as they would have done during the time Dickens occupied the house.
The washhouse copper would have been put to various uses along with washing linen, heating water for cleaning the house and for baths and just as Dickens describes in A ChristmasCarol, it would be used to steam the Christmas puddings as in the scene where Mrs Cratchit emerges from the washhouse with the Christmas pudding!!
The washhouse copper, used to heat water for household chores and baths, even for cooking the Christmas pudding!
Next, you are guided upstairs to the first floor to the drawing room and Dickens’ very own study. The other rooms on this floor are used for special exhibitions throughout the year. Dicken’s study is complete with floor to ceiling bookshelves complete with a vast collection of books, many of which were given to him by his publishers and fellow authors. The desk is perfectly preserved, it’s astonishing to comprehend that more than 180 years ago, Charles Dickens sat at this very desk creating his literary masterpieces. The study has a collection of original works behind the glass cabinets, perfectly preserved.
Above, Dickens desk where he wrote his masterpieces.
Also on the first floor is the drawing room and being the largest room in the house, it was where Dickens and Catherine would have entertained after dinner and chatted with their friends about the theatre or new books or exchange a bit of gossip. The room is richly decorated to Dickens taste with rich fabrics and bold colours typical of the Regency period. It’s a stunning room beautifully decorated for Christmas with the presence of a magnificent Christmas tree, the centre piece of this room.
The second floor is home to the master bedroom and the bedroom of Catherine’s sister, Mary Hogarth who sadly passed away at the house. Mary’s bedroom embodies Victorian high society, a large high single bed is adorned with a canopy and rich fabrics and sheets.
Mary Hogarth’s bed with nightgown.
She came to stay with Dickens and Catherine which must have been an immense support to Catherine and of course companionship, I can imagine living at this house to be quite lonely at times and so Catherine must have cherished the months spent with her sister. Her sudden death from heart failure had a profound effect on the family especially on Charles who is said to have suffered deeply. He was unable to work in the immediate aftermath of the event, he wrote the epitaph for her gravestone: “Young, beautiful and good, God numbered her with His Angels at the early age of seventeen” It must have been heart-breaking.
The master bedroom is also rich is fabrics, majestic fireplace and four poster bed and portable bathtub. Here, Catherine gave birth to two baby girls. Mary in 1838 and Katherine in 1839, midwives and doctors would have attended to her, a frightening experience at the best of times let alone in Victorian times.
The presence of a separate dressing room next door much like today’s en-suites and walk-in-wardrobes indicates that Dickens had achieved middle class status. Between 1837 and 1852, Catherine gave birth to eye watering ten children! Also on this floor is another exhibition and reading room.
We come to the third and last floor which I found bleak and quite depressing, but I think that’s because I can really envisage and feel what life must have been like back then. I’m drawn to Victorian London like a magnet is to iron having a special interest during this time in our history which both terrifies, fascinates and intrigues me. I almost wish I could go back in time to live this life if only for a day, such is the allure of this era.
On this floor is the nursery and servants’ bedroom, the nursery is the front attic room and where the children slept often sharing it with the nurse or servant. The room is now dedicated to various events of childhood in Dickens’ life which he so rigidly suppressed only telling his close friend and biographer John Forster and possibly his wife Catherine. The most prominent feature in the room is the original window grille from Marshalsea prison for debtors – Debtor’s Prison, just those words fills me with horror.
Don’t touch the grille! it’s so fragile, unfortunatley I did only to be scolded, I feared I would also end up in prison!
A normal part of poverty stricken Victorian London and depicted in the story of A Christmas Carol, now we know why Dickens was inspired to write this story as he feared debt and poverty so much, it is evident throughout the house with various documents and stories on display. When he was a child, his father’s fate was debtor’s prison, imprisoned for a debt in 1824, young Charles was consequently removed from school and sent to work in a blacking factory. The event happened after John Dickens, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Chatham had been posted to London which involved a drop-in income hence the debt that built up and inevitable prison for non-payment.
The blacking factory experience was a humiliating one to young Charles and so traumatised was he by the loss of social standing and the apparant sudden end of hopes in growing up to become a distinguished man, he vowed never to be in this position again. Yet, this episode was perhaps the most defining moment in his character formation however, the public was not made aware of this part of his early life until after his death.
The servants’ room is quite bare, I’m not sure how many would have slept here, the walls are embellished with captions and phrases from Dickens’ many works.
His fear of poverty is clearly evident in his stories.
Every December, the museum is host to many events which is dedicated to Dicken’s most famous works of all, A Christmas Carol and there is no better time to get into the festive spirit than to visit the museum during December.
Three or four years back, my first visit with my younger two children encompassed a tour of the house and a play put on by Petersham Playhouse, Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Cracker. Mr Fezziwig being young Ebenezer Scrooge’s employer and in the story, Scrooge is reminded how his own values have diverged greatly from those of someone he once admired. Mr Fezziwig is a capitalist but moderates profit maximisation with kindness, generosity and affection, attributes sadly missing from Scrooge.
So, the museum comes to life in December with Christmas extravaganzas, several readings of A Christmas Carol which I attended last December, the lights are dimmed in the drawing room and Dominic Gerrard brings this Christmas classic to life with his talented narration. The narrations of A Christmas Carol are something that the museum is proud to put on every December and is as much part of the museum as the museum itself. This December, the museum has an exhibition called Unwrapping a Christmas Carol, it aims to examine the novel’s creation and its legacy and success and continued popularity. It partners with the new film which came out on 1st of December called The Man Who Invented Christmas. I particularly wanted to visit the museum because of this exhibition. If you look at the website, you’ll find past and future exhibitions, this one runs until 25th of February 2018.
Below, costumes from the film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” telling the story of how and what inspired Dickens to write A Christmas Carol.
Also on this year is Dicken’s Christmas Books, it wasn’t just A Christmas Carol that Dicken’s wrote, he wrote several books symbolising Christmas including The Haunted Man, The Chimes and the Battle of Life are just a few, this is performed by James Swanton. The Christmas Housemaid’s Tour is also one I would enjoy.
Photo courtesy of the museum used for The Housemaid’s Tour.
Costumed Christmas Walks which are usually on every December. The tour begins in the heart of historic City of London and delves straight into the old alleyways in which Dickens began his festive tale, it’s time to get into the festive mood with this very special walk.
Dickensian Costumes Walks, photo by museum.
Charles Dickens and Christmas by Lucinda Dickens Hawksely talks about how her great, great, great grandfather helped to influence the way Christmas is celebrated today, another one to attend if you love Christmas as much as I do. Christmas Lates is an opportunity to explore the house in the evening lavishly dressed for Christmas, you’ll be treated to late night carols and readings from A Christmas Carol. There is also a reading of A Christmas Carol by Professor Michael Slater as an alternative to Dominic Gerrards reading.
A Very Dickensian Christmas Eve, photo supplied by museum.
A Very Dickensian Christmas Eve is very special indeed, taking a step back in time, you’ll be enjoying mulled cider and traditional mince pies while enjoying festive greenery, Victorian fayre and the scent of citrus and spice evoking the sights and smells of a bygone Christmas whilst being entertained by Dickens descendant Ollie Dickens. Finally, on the last Sunday of every month beginning 28th of January 2018, a drop-in object handling session throughout 48 Doughty Street. You’ll discover new items on each floor and you’ll be provided with the opportunity to discover a unique set of Dickensian curiosities ranging from a cheque singed by Dickens to a beautiful dolls house, an engraved snuff box and much more.
Professor Michael Slater’s reading of A Christmas Carol, photo courtesy of the museum.
I finished the tour of the museum by visiting the café for a much-needed scone and tea whilst relishing in the wonderment that is the CharlesDickensMuseum. The museum so brilliantly portrays what life was like for Dickens and his family in Victorian London making the visitor really feel as if they are experiencing a slice of life in Dickensian London through clever use of props and sounds not to mention the festive live entertainment in December and the various exhibitions throughout the year. The museum should be very proud of all that they have achieved preserving the memory and life of this great author, CharlesDickens. This is a museum you’ll want to visit time and time again, the highlight for me though are always the events happening in December, I associate it with Christmas and there is nowhere else to visit this time of year, it embodies Christmas past and I for one await this time of year to visit just for that.
Charles Dickens died on the 9th of June 1870 aged 58, he had been in decling health for some time but ultimately death came by a stroke. This excerpt tells a bit about his death.
The museum is open for hire, the Grade I listed Charles Dickens Museum provides the perfect setting for an atmospheric dinner, elegant drinks reception, private corporate event or as a historical film location. It provides special educational visits for schools. You can also donate to the museum and become a volunteer, information on the website.
Charles Dickens Museum
48 Doughty Street
London, WC1N 2LX
Telephone: 020 7405 2127
I visited the museum in early December, all photos are my own unless stipulated and opinions are all my own.