Take one Dickens aficionado (me), one neutral but willing visitor (my husband) and one young man who was forced to read ‘something about a Miss Havisham’ at school (our son). Can a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum please us all?
This is the only surviving house that Dickens lived in, in London (and he lived in many) and even then, he only spent two years here from 1837-39. His star was in the ascendant, the Pickwick Papers was selling well and he had married Catherine and had a son, Charles Jr. While living here, Catherine bore him two daughters in their bedroom upstairs.
It’s a tall, narrow terraced house in a street of similar solid dwellings. It stretches over five floors including a basement and attics, and apart from its connection with Dickens, is a typically middle-class Victorian dwelling. He paid £80 a year rent for it, a sizable sum in those days.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You will learn much about Dickens
- You will appreciate what it was like to live in Victorian London
- Good for: Dickens lovers, history lovers, social history
Choose a Quiet Time to Visit
A Saturday afternoon is perhaps not the best time to visit; it’s busy, the museum is small and the stairs are narrow and congested. To spend time looking at the exhibits close-up and reading information about them causes a jam and I noticed husband and son skipping some of what I considered to be the best items.
We were given a booklet as our guide. Apparently it is similar to what readers would buy every week when Dickens was bringing out his novels in serial installments. It led us first into the dining room on the ground floor. (To make sure we’re on the same page, what Americans call the first floor is called the ground floor in the UK, and the next floor up is the first floor.)
The table was set for dinner with each place having the name of some of Dickens’ many visitors who came to share the delights of good conversation and wine. It’s a small room, though Dickens once managed to squeeze 14 family members and friends into it. Facing the back of the house is Catherine’s morning room where she organised her household and wrote her many letters to her often absent husband.
The guide next led us downstairs to the basement, the domain of the servants. Here are the kitchen, scullery and wash-house where all the cooking, washing-up and laundry was done. It’s a dark and not very pleasant place to work in and I didn’t envy the servants’ lives one bit.
The First Floor and Above
The main drawing room is upstairs on the first floor and is the largest room in the house. Here Dickens would put on plays and performances for the entertainment of his family and friends. Thus he honed his skills so that when he went to America, he was very much a polished performer. Even our son did express some mild interest in the artifacts here.
Off the drawing room was my hallowed spot – the study where Dickens wrote his novels. His desk stands there but it is too pristine for my liking. I always imagined scraps of paper scattered over it and pens and ink and blotting paper. However the lighting is annoyingly authentic; the candle-lit gloom makes it difficult to read the actual manuscript lying there.
Up another winding stair to the bedrooms; four poster beds of course. Charles and Catherine’s is the larger. Next door is the bedroom where her young sister died suddenly, shocking Dickens and preventing him writing anything for several months.
An even narrower, uncarpeted stair leads to the attics where the children and the servants slept. They must have been cold, unwelcoming rooms. What was the nursery contains, rather bizarrely, a prison grille. It represents the unfortunate childhood that Dickens suffered (his father was the model for Mr Micawber) and how it influenced his writing. The walls are covered with quotes from Dickens’ novels which even our son admitted to recognising.
The museum has taken over the house next door as well, which allows for a gift shop, cafe and timeline room as well as providing disabled access to some, but not all of the floors. We all enjoyed the coffee and cakes and left fully satisfied — even if not everyone in our group is convinced that they should read some, or any of Dickens’ works.
- The museum is at 48 Doughty St, Campden Town and is open daily, last entry 4 pm.
- The nearest tube stations are Russell Square (Piccadilly Line), Chancery Lane or Holborn (Central Line) or Kings Cross St Pancras.
- Disabled access is limited and stairs are narrow.