Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Back along Camden's "Museum Mile"

In a quiet Georgian terrace, just around the corner from the Foundling Hospital, stands the house Dickens took in the early years of his success, and in it the Dickens Museum. The street would have been quieter then, as it was gated off; nowadays it houses lawyers' chambers and other offices, though some still appear to be lived in.

Having a keen eye for the business side of writing and publishing, Dickens left much in the way of memorabilia; as a result the house gives a fair impression of his energy and industry.

There's one display that makes you realise what an effort went into publication, from deciphering his handwriting to typesetting and proofing: and all to a standard 32-page format for the monthly instalments in which his works appeared.

There's a rather uninspiring video outline of his life and work (it seems to be one of a series of programmes, perhaps meant for schools: there's not much sign of people like Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow or Peter Ackroyd), but the real interest is in the things he really would have seen and used: a desk, a chair, even a commode, letters and manuscripts aplenty, and here his inkwell and a little china monkey he always had on his desk.

What doesn't quite come across is the sense I always get that his concern with social injustices, however rooted in reality, is subsumed into a melodramatic and fantastical form. For that you need to go back to the books, so I bought from the museum shop Our Mutual Friend, which I've been meaning to read for years - I remember being enthralled by a TV adaptation from years ago. All I need now is an unthreatening illness and a suitably Victorian period of convalescence to read it in.

His capacity for mythologising his characters - even London itself - seems all of a piece with the extraordinary energy with which he threw himself into his work and his commercialisation, into creating the strong and prosperous family life and even ultimately a sort of "village squire" status in Kent, where his father had so signally failed. If any man could be said to have worked himself to death, Dickens seems to have come close.

Perhaps that's what "Dickens World" aims at, though diamond geezer confirms my suspicions about the theme park approach. There are also museums with Dickens connections in Broadstairs, Portsmouth and Rochester.

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