Going Mad for Charles Dickens

Two centuries after his birth, the novelist is still wildly popular, as a theme park, a new movie and countless festivals attest

Dickens World, a theme park in Chatham, offers an 1800s immersion. The novelist, says the attraction's Kevin Christie, "was a showman. He would have loved this." (Stuart Conway)
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With his father incarcerated, Charles, a bright and industrious student, was forced to leave school at around age 11 and take a job gluing labels on bottles at a London bootblacking factory. “It was a terrible, terrible humiliation,” Tomalin told me, a trauma that would haunt Dickens for the rest of his life. After John Dickens was released from jail, the son resumed his education; neither parent ever mentioned the episode again. Although Charles immortalized a version of the experience in David Copperfield, he himself disclosed the interlude perhaps only to his wife, and later, to his closest friend, the literary critic and editor John Forster. Four years after the novelist’s death, Forster revealed the incident in his Life of Charles Dickens.

At 15, with his father again insolvent, Dickens left school and found work as a solicitor’s clerk in London’s Holburn Court. He taught himself shorthand and was hired by his uncle, the editor of a weekly newspaper, to transcribe court proceedings and eventually, debates at the House of Commons, a difficult undertaking that undoubtedly sharpened his observational powers. In a new biography, Becoming Dickens, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst describes the rigors of the task: “Cramped, gloomy, and stuffy, [the Parliamentary chamber] required the reporter to squeeze himself onto one of the benches provided for visitors, and then balance his notebook on his knees while he strained to hear the speeches drifting up from the floor.” Soon Dickens was working as a political reporter for the Morning Chronicle and writing fictional sketches for magazines and other publications under the pen name Boz. Dickens parlayed that modest success into a contract for his first novel: a picaresque, serialized tale centering on four travelers, Samuel Pickwick, Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass and Tracy Tupman—the Pickwick Society— journeying by coach around the English countryside.The first installment of The Pickwick Papers appeared in April 1836, and the monthly print run soared to 40,000. In November, Dickens quit the newspaper to become a full-time novelist. By then he had married Catherine Hogarth, the pleasant, if rather passive, daughter of a Morning Chronicle music critic.

In the spring of 1837, the newly famous, upwardly mobile Dickens moved into a four-story Georgian town house in the Bloomsbury neighborhood at 48 Doughty Street with his wife, their infant son, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, and Catherine’s teenage sister, Mary Hogarth.The property since 1925 has been the site of the Charles Dickens Museum, stocked with period furniture and art, as well as memorabilia donated by Dickens’ descendants. When I arrived a few months ago, a crew was breaking through a wall into an adjacent house to create a library and education center. Director Florian Schweizer guided me past divans and paintings shrouded in dust covers. “It probably looks the way it did when Dickens was moving in,” he told me.

The two and a half years that the Dickenses spent on Doughty Street were a period of dazzling productivity and dizzying social ascent. Dickens wrote an opera libretto, the final chapters of The Pickwick Papers, short stories, magazine articles, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby and the beginning of Barnaby Rudge. Shadowed by his father’s failures, Dickens had lined up multiple contracts from two publishers and “was trying to make as much money as he could,” Schweizer says as we pass a construction crew en route to the front parlor. “His great model, Walter Scott, at one point had lost all his money, and he thought, ‘This could happen to me.’” Dickens attracted a wide circle of artistic friends and admirers, including the most famous English actor of the time, William Macready, and the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, also an accomplished draftsman, who would later apply—unsuccessfully—for the job of illustrating Dickens’ works. Portraits of Dickens painted during the years at Doughty Street depict a clean-shaven, long-haired dandy, typical of the Regency period before the reign of Queen Victoria. “He dressed as flamboyantly as he could,” says Schweizer, “with jewelry and gold everywhere, and bright waistcoats. To our eyes he looked quite effeminate, but that’s how ‘gents’ of the time would have dressed.”

Schweizer and I mount a creaking flight of stairs to the second floor and enter Dickens’ empty study. Each day, Dickens wrote from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a large wooden desk in this room, with views of the mews and gardens, and with the morning sun streaming through the windows. But Dickens’ contentment here was short-lived: In the summer of 1837, his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth collapsed at home, perhaps of heart failure. “A period of happiness came to an abrupt end,” says Schweizer, leading me up to the third-floor bedroom where the 17-year-old died in Dickens’ arms.

Dickens, although devastated by the loss, continued writing. The huge success of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, both released in serial form, made Dickens arguably the most famous man in England. As always, he forged the material of his life into art: In The Old Curiosity Shop, completed in 1841, Dickens transmuted his memories of Mary Hogarth into the character of the doomed Little Nell, forced to survive in the streets of London after the wicked Quilp seizes her grandfather’s shop. His melodramatic account of her lingering final illness distressed readers across all classes of British society. “Daniel O’Connell, the Irish M.P., reading the book in a railway carriage, burst into tears, groaned ‘He should not have killed her’, and despairingly threw the volume out of the train window,” Edgar Johnson writes in his 1976 biography, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph.

In January 1842, at the height of his fame, Dickens decided to see America. Enduring a stormy crossing aboard the steamer Britannia, he and Catherine arrived in Boston to a rapturous welcome. Readings and receptions there, as well as in Philadelphia and New York, were mobbed; Dickens calculated that he must have shaken an average of 500 hands a day. But a White House meeting with President John Tyler (dubbed “His Accidency” by detractors because he took office after the sudden death of his predecessor) left the novelist unimpressed. He was disgusted by the state of America’s prisons and repelled by slavery. “We are now in the regions of slavery, spittoons, and senators—all three are evils in all countries,” Dickens wrote from Richmond, Virginia, to a friend. By the end of the odyssey, he confided that he had never seen “a people so entirely destitute of humor, vivacity, or the capacity for enjoyment. They are heavy, dull, and ignorant.” Dickens recast his American misadventure in Martin Chuzzlewit, a satirical novel in which the eponymous hero flees England to seek his fortune in America, only to nearly perish of malaria in a swampy, disease-ridden frontier settlement named Eden.

I’m huddled in a plastic poncho aboard a skiff in the sewers of 19th-century London. Peering through darkness and fog, I float past water wheels, musty back alleys, the stone walls of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, dilapidated tenements, docks and pilings. Rats skitter along the water’s edge. I duck my head as we pass beneath an ancient stone bridge and enter a tunnel. Leaving the sewers behind, the boat begins to climb at a sharp angle, improbably emerging onto the East End’s rooftops—strung with lines of tattered laundry, against a backdrop of St. Paul’s Cathedral silhouetted in the moonlight. Suddenly, the skiff catapults backward with a drenching splash into a graveyard, pulling to a stop in the marshes of Kent, where the fugitive Magwitch fled at the outset of Great Expectations.

In fact, I’m inside a sprawling structure near a shopping mall in Chatham, in southeastern England, at one of the more kitschy manifestations of Charles Dickens’ eternal afterlife. Dickens World, a $100 million indoor theme park dedicated to Britain’s greatest novelist, opened in 2007, down the road from the former Royal Naval Shipyard, now the Chatham Maritime, where John Dickens worked after being transferred from Portsmouth, in 1821. Dickens World attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually—many of them children on school trips organized by teachers hoping to make their students’ first exposure to Dickens as enjoyable as a trip to Disneyland.

A young marketing manager leads me from the Great Expectations Boat Ride into a cavernous mock-up of Victorian London, where a troupe of actors prepares for a 15-minute dramatization of scenes from Oliver Twist. Past Mrs. Macklin’s Muffin Parlor—familiar to readers of Sketches by Boz—and the cluttered shop of Mr. Venus, the “articulator of human bones” and “preserver of animals and birds” from Our Mutual Friend, we enter a gloomy manse. Here, in rooms off a dark corridor, holograms of Dickens characters—Miss Havisham, Oliver Twist’s Mr. Bumble the Beadle, Tiny Tim Cratchet, Stony Durdles from The Mystery of Edwin Drood—introduce themselves in the voice of Gerard Dickens, Charles’ great-great-grandson. My tour concludes in the Britannia Theatre, where an android Dickens chats with a robotic Mr. Pickwick and his servant, Samuel Weller.


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