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Seven Dials, in central London, was synonymous with poverty and crime, a black hole to most Londoners. Charles Dickens stormed it with pen and paper. (The Print Collector / Alamy)

How Charles Dickens Saw London

Sketches by Boz, the volume of newspaper columns that became Dickens’ first book, invokes a colorful view of 19th-century England

But many of Dickens’ locales still exist, however unrecognizably. What was Covent Garden like when it was the city’s main vegetable market? At dawn the pavement was “strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves, broken haybands. . . men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying.” Drury Lane was rich with “dramatic characters” and costume shops selling boots “heretofore worn by a ‘fourth robber’ or ‘fifth mob.’” Ragged boys ran through the streets near Waterloo Bridge, which were filled with “dirt and discomfort,” tired kidney-pie vendors and flaring gaslights.

Bring Dickens on a trip to Greenwich, in southeast London, and the quiet hamlet springs alive. The scene sounds less antiquated than you’d expect; the annual Greenwich fair was as rowdy as a college festival, “a three day’s fever, which cools the blood for six months afterwards.” There were stalls selling toys, cigars and oysters; games, clowns, dwarfs, bands and bad skits; and noisy, spirited women playing penny trumpets and dancing in men’s hats. In the park, couples would race down the hill from the observatory, “greatly to the derangement of [the women’s] curls and bonnet caps.”

Even the clamoring traffic jam on the road to Greenwich is recognizable, like a chaotic, drunken crush: “We cannot conscientiously deny the charge of having once made the passage in a spring-van, accompanied by thirteen gentlemen, fourteen ladies, and unlimited number of children, and a barrel of beer; and we have a vague recollection of having, in later days, found ourself. . . on the top of a hackney-coach, at something past four o’clock in the morning, with a rather confused idea of our own name, or place of residence.”

The places Dickens describes resemble in many ways the urban life we know today – crammed with people from different backgrounds and classes. But this modern city only came into being in the early 19th century, and his work was entirely new in both subject and sensibility. It’s hard to appreciate how distinct Boz must have sounded to Londoners then, because his voice has since become ours. Even after 175 years, he makes the city feel fresh.

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