Throughout his all-too-brief life, Charles Dickens was constantly on the move. By any measure, his list of residences is astounding. Perhaps he inherited this restless spirit from his father, who moved from pillar to post, usually one step ahead of the creditors. Sadly, most of Dickens’s home no longer exist, their presence–or rather absence–marked by a sign or commemorative plaque saying Charles Dickens once lived here.
But that’s okay–a great city such as London is like the Phoenix, constantly recreating itself in the ashes of its own destruction. And anyway Dickens’s London still exists in the pages of his books. Still, there is a remaining jewel: 48 Doughty Street. In 1837, Charles Dickens, his wife Catherine, and her seventeen-year-old sister Mary Hogarth moved to the handsome residence, a house that befitted Dickens’s position as a rising novelist.
Delighted with his new digs, Dickens wrote: “It was a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear…. a genteel private street with a lodge at each end and gates that were closed at night by a porter in a gold-laced hat and a mulberry-colored coat.”
This beautifully restored house is now home to the Charles Dickens Museum and a must-see for any lover of Dickens.When my husband and I visited, we were lucky enough to catch the costumed tour.
Here’s the set-up: It is 1839. Mr. Dickens and his family aren’t at home, but the chatty housemaid invites inside for a look around. I rather suspected the young flibbertigibbet was in her cups, but who can blame her? It was a chill April morning and I’d have gladly joined her in a bowl of Smoking Bishop, if she’d offered.
During his three-year sojourn at Doughty Street, Dickens was a happily married young husband and father who’d just experienced his first commercial and critical successes, with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.
Although they grew apart as the years and babies accumulated, during their stay on Doughty Street, Charles and Catherine were an attractive young couple, very much in love.
When our hostess led us into the room where he had penned these three early novels, I was momentarily struck dumb. This was where Oliver Twist drew his first breath and Nancy her last, Sensing my interest, our hostess took me aside for a private word.
“I daresay when I first entered Mr. Dickens’s employ. I thought the master was mad as hops! I’d be passing on the stairs and here him in his room talkin’ and yellin’ to himself in all different kind of voices. I would have sworn to the Beadle he weren’t alone, though I knew the truth of it, I did.” The good woman laughed and lowered her voice. “Why, once I peeked in and he were winkin’ and twitchin’ at himself in the mirror, like one of them crazed folk at Bedlam!”
“He was happy here,” I said, and a shadow passed over the kind woman’s face. “Wasn’t he?” I prodded.
“You’ve read his books, so you know how it was–how it is. Life is always mixed up, not all one or the other. Come, let me take you to her room.”
“Mary’s room?” I whispered and our hostess nodded.
Charles Dickens was inordinately fond of his pretty sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, a pretty ephemeral creatures of sweetness and light. One night in 1837, Mary fell ill. She died the following day, in Charles Dickens’s arms.
Distraught, Dickens removed a ring from Mary’s cold finger and placed in on his own, where it remained for the rest of his days. Inconsolable after the loss of “so perfect a creature,” he was unable–for the first and last time in his professional life–to put pen to paper. Time and deadlines passed, with no new installments of The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist.
Dickens never really recovered from the tragedy–Mary’s untimely death haunted his life and his fiction. His novels are peopled with the ghosts of Mary Hogarth. To some this might seem hard, but that’s what writers do: they mine their own lives and the lives of others to create art.
In The Old Curiosity Shop–a mere three years after the tragedy–Dickens created his most direct representation of Mary in Little Nell, an impoverished, sickly waif of “not quite fourteen”. As Little Nell’s life hung in the balance, two continents nervously awaited her fate. In a nineteenth-century version of going viral, frenzied New Yorkers were so eager to read the final part of Dickens’ story that they crowded the docks on a daily basis, shouting to the sailors on incoming ships, “Is Little Nell dead?”
(Spoiler alert: Yes, she is. In fact, Nell’s death scene is one of the most moving in Victorian literature, no small feat.)
In David Copperfield, Dickens’s most autobiographical novel and one of my personal favorites, Mary is resurrected in the character of wise Agnes. At least here, Dickens wrote himself a happy ending, endowing his literary doppelgangers of David and Agnes with marital contentment.
After leaving the death room, we followed our hostess to the dining room, where I was cheered to find the dining table set for guests.
As our time at Doughty Street drew to a close, I thought that this little house was not unlike one of Mr. Dickens’s books. His novels brimmed with life,but death was a constant presence, the uninvited guest at life’s banquet. Though he recognized the evil that men do, he affirmed–again and again–the power of the human heart. Though a frail organ, Dickens believed that there was no darkness so profound that it could not be illuminated by a loving human heart.
I’d like to believe he was right. Wouldn’t you?
All too soon, it was time to leave 1837 and the cozy house on Doughty Street. In farewell, our hostess quoted these words form the conclusion of The Pickwick Papers, when our narrator bids a final goodbye to that goodhearted fool, Mr.Pickwick.
Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.
Well said, Mr. Dickens.