Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s presence stays with us 142 years after his death. (Dickens is even referenced in Fifty Shades of Grey!) 2012 has been the bicentenary year of his birth and while the Charles Dickens Museum has been closed this year there has been a major legacy project for the bicentenary, aptly named the Great Expectations Project.
Great Expectations Project
The £3.1 million refurbishment project started in 2007 and has been completed on budget and on time. The museum wanted to make Dickens relevant to today yet preserve the heritage. Prince Charles, who visited earlier this year, had asked that the building shouldn’t be made to look too new.
Disabled access has been improved with a lift/elevator at the rear of no.49 making the museum now 90% accessible from only 10% (a virtual tour brings it up to 100%). Education and study areas are a great addition, and the kitchen is restored plus the attic is open for the first time. And all visitors will enjoy the cafe too.
The building is much more historically accurate now and the rooms are decorated as Dickens would have known them.
While the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were the dominating event of the year for Londoners, I was surprised to hear that internationally Dickens was often even more influential throughout 2012. I was even more surprised to hear that Indian schoolchildren have to read two Dickens books during their education – English schoolchildren don’t actually have to read one!
The Charles Dickens Museum reopens on Monday 10 December 2012 and, as well as lots of Christmas events, it will continue its tradition of opening on Christmas Day. I was lucky enough to get a preview and went on the first tour of the building with the Museum Director, Dr Florian Schweizer.
History of the Building
48 Doughty Street was built around 1805. Although Dickens had lived at many addresses, this was his first proper home in London. He lived here for two years in 1837-39 and moved in with his wife Catherine and their first son, Charles Junior. Catherine gave birth to two daughters here. They moved in with a three year lease on the property at £80 a year.
It should be remembered they were in their twenties and the building was only 30 years old. The couple were young and fashionable and loved vibrant garish colours as this was the Regency period and Dickens embraced the dandy look and theatrical interior design. He never really toned down his love of bright colours even into the gloomy Victorian era when many because more sombre.
48 Doughty Street – pronounced ‘dow’ as in Dow Jones not ‘dough’ as in bread – was Dickens’s home at the start of his career and where he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. This is where he started publishing under his own name and not his pen-name, Boz, he used as a journalist.
The museum opened here in 1925 and has welcomed more than one million visitors over 80 years.
The first display is of costumes from Mike Newell’s film adaptation of Great Expectations, just released in the UK including Helena Bonham Carter’s Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes’ Magwitch costumes.
Visitors now enter at no.49 Doughty Street where there’s the desk to buy tickets, the shop and cafe. You then take a side route into no.48 to the Entrance Hall Dickens’s would have known so well. The door on no.48 is the original and this slight adaptation of the entry route is simply to preserve the door and to give an accessible entry point for disabled visitors too.
Everyone is given a Plan and Visitor Guide produced in the style of Dickens’s “monthly parts” which was how he first published his novels. Sadly this lovely booklet must be handed back at the end of your visit but it is needed as you tour the building as there are no labels in the rooms. This was on purpose so as not to detract from the room sets.
Visitors had described the museum previously as atmospheric but tired and shabby. The Ground Floor is now light and bright and much more welcoming.
In the Dining Room a dining table is set with plates for a fictional dinner party for William C Macready, William M Thackeray, William H Ainsworth, John Forster, Daniel Maclise and, of course, Charles Dickens. The place cards explain their significance and visitors will hear ambient background noises such as servants bringing food and sounds of crockery and cutlery in use.
You may recognise this room as it was used in Hereafter, a 2010 American supernatural drama fantasy film directed by Clint Eastwood.
Next door, the Morning Room was Catherine’s room for writing letters and greeting guests. She wrote a lot as Charles Dickens was often travelling. It’s a light and bright room and the portraits above the fireplace show them as a beautiful young couple. Their marriage licence is also on display.
As you walk around the house you will see many paintings of Dickens making this the largest collection of paintings of the great author.
Young Dickens Guides You
While there are no labels or directions there are these silhouettes of a young Dickens to point the way.
Take a quick trip down to the cold basement and there are new education rooms so schools can now visit and try hands-on activities. Hopefully they’ll be able to try using some of Catherine Dickens’s recipes in the Kitchen. All visitors can go down to the Kitchen and look out for Bill Spikes, the resident (stuffed) hedgehog, who would have been a good ‘pet’ for catching beetles.
Upstairs is the largest room in the house, the Drawing Room, which was used for entertaining. Dickens loved to perform and he cherished the direct contact with an audience these intimate performances at his home could offer. Visitors can sit in this room and listen to an audio of readings while enjoying the atmosphere it evokes. On display is his reading desk which he designed and used in the UK and the US.
Next door is his Study where his writing desk is on display. He had a strict self-imposed writing schedule and wrote every morning in this east-facing room. There are also bookcases to the ceiling filled with books by Dickens and from his own collection.
The rooms are noticeably darker up here. Visitors had asked for a bedroom to look like a bedroom so that’s what you’ll find now. Charles and Catherine’s bedroom has a four poster bed and his original wardrobe from Gad’s Hill Place is on display here for the first time. (Gad’s Hill Place was his Kent home and is now a school.)
Next door is the Mary Hogarth Room, a room that has been dedicated to Dickens’s mild obsession with death. This is where his 17 year old sister-in-law died while living with them and a sketch of Dickens on his death bed by Millais will be on display here soon.
Previously not open to the public, the attic has been renovated so visitors can see the Nursery and the Servant’s Room. The Nursery has a Marshalsea Prison Grille from the debtor’s prison where Dickens’s father was held. Beds were being added when I visited.
While I thought the infamous letter painting person who has had so much work in London heritage properties lately (Kensington Palace is the epitome) had been kept at bay, when we got to the last room on the tour, the Servant’s Room, the lettering was on overload with the walls covered in quotes. Ah well, such is the style these days.
To exit, you need to go down to the second floor and into no.49 which has a very different feel to the Grade 1 listed heritage building. This is where the extension has been built to house the accessible lift/elevator and there’s a fabulous timeline around the walls of Dickens’s life.
At the preview I attended the cafe was not yet open but I’ll definitely be going back soon to see the house full of visitors and to enjoy a pot of tea in such an historic literary location.
Address: 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX
Nearest Tube Station: Russell Square
Tel: 020 7405 2126
Opening Times: Mon-Sun: 10am-5pm. The Museum is open on Christmas Day but closed on New Year’s Day.
Admission: Adult: £8, Concession: £6, Child 6-16: £4, Children under 6: free. (Different rates apply for Christmas events)
Official Website: www.dickensmuseum.com