DICKENSLAND

 

LEE JACKSON is an author and historian with an abiding interest in the social history and geography of Victorian London.

Lee is currently beginning a PhD at Royal Holloway University, in conjunction with the Dickens Museum, entitled Dickensland. This will examine both the evolution of "Dickens' London" as an imaginative space and its importance to contemporary Dickensian literary/heritage tourism.
 

lee@victorianlondon.org

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www.victorianlondon.org

   

 

  

Charles Dickens Jr. 'Notes on Some Dickens Places and People', Pall Mall Magazine, July 1896 pp.342-355

[added 23rd April 2018]

THERE was a short correspondence, some months ago, in one of the papers, which interested me a good deal, as illustrating the curiously serious manner in which a great many people, to this day, treat questions of the topography of the writings of Charles Dickens. It began by somebody inquiring whereabouts in Kentish Town he could find the site of the "Boot" tavern, described in "Barnaby Rudge" and was closed by a letter which pointed out with unimpeachable correctness that the "Boot" was said in the book to have been "situated in the fileds at the back of the Foundling Hospital," and could, therefore, never had had anything whatever to do with Kentish Town. In addition to this the writer stated, no doubt with equal truth, that the "Boot" public-house which now stands in Cromer Street is a direct successor of the old Gordon Riots Tavern, and stands upon its actual site; and, if I remember rightly, that the present landlord is a descendant of mine host of 1780 - which, by-the-bye, does not seem to be much to be proud of. It is true that the compiler of "Old and New London" states that "the 'Boat,' an isolated tavern in the open fields at the back of the Foundling, doubtless commemorated the time when boats and barges came up the Fleet River as far as Battle Bridge," and further identifies it by saying that "it formed the headquarters of the rioters and incendiaries who aided and abetted Lord George Gordon in his anti-Popish riots in 1780." But, while the latter statement is correct enough, I think the writer must have been deluded by a misprint or an [-343-] error in transcription and having thus got at "Boat" instead of "Boot" evolved the derivation of the sign from his inner consciousness and not from any trustworthy antiquarian authority - a supposition which is greatly strengthened by the fact that index declines to have anything to do with "Boat," but adheres without hesitation to "Boot".
    Thus, I take it, there is no doubt about the accuracy of the letter to which I have alluded - so far at least; but the writer went on to a point to which, I confess, I cannot follow him. He avers that he must be right because he was told, in the "boot,", by "the illustrious novelist himself," in the year 1867 or 1868, that that was the identical house he had in his mind's eye when he was writing "Barnaby Rudge". My disposition to consider this an amiable hallucination or an odd mistake is strengthened and, indeed, fully confirmed by two considerations. In the first place, it is not conceivable that the author, in describing a house which existed in 1780, should have troubled himself with a totally different building which too its place many years afterwards; and, in the second place, I cannot imagine anything more unlikely that that "the illustrious novelist himself" should have been hob-nobbing and talking about his books with a casual stranger in the bar or bar-parlour - the precise location is not specified - of a public-house in Cromer Street in the year 1867 or 1868, or at any date thereunto distantly related.
    The mental confusion which is apparent in this account of Charles Dickens's treatment of the "Boot" is typical of that which is displayed by a great many excellent Dickensites, who, in their desire to get as much as possible at the inner history of the books which they love so much are perhaps a little inclined to get over-exacting, and to require more than, in the nature of things, they can get. The desire is one which cannot fail to be most interesting and pleasant to me and to all the members of my father's family, and a little genuine disinterested hero-worship in these pessimistic and cynical days is always agreeable and refreshing; but even a good [-344-] thing can be overdone, and I am afraid that the present is rather a case in point. In their wish to verify as closely as possible the places with which the Dickens books deal, people run a considerable danger of losing sight of the rather important fact that the imagination of the writer has generally, except in describing an actual place under its actual name, raised so considerable a superstructure on the basis of the original fact as to make it practically unrecognisable. It is true that many of the places described in Charles Dickens's book were suggested by real localities or buildings, but the more the question comes to be examined the more clear it is that all that was done with the prototype was to use it as a painter or a sculptor uses a sketch, and that, under the hand of the writer and in the natural process of evolution, it has grown in almost every case into a finished picture with few if any very salient points about it to render its origin unmistakable. Photographic accuracy must not be demanded in these cases.
    My friend Percy Fitzgerald, as he makes clear in his recent volume "Bozland," is not of my way of thinking. He is not content with the knowledge that the "Great White Horse" at Ipswich is the veritable "Great White Horse" of "Pickwick" but is even feverishly anxious to be informed which was the actual room in which Mr. Pickwick had that embarrassing interview with the middle-aged spinster in the culr-papers, or in what particular corner of which particular corridor he waited until Mr. Samuel Weller came to his rescue. What was the exact itinerary followed by Little Nell and her Grandfather when the fled from London is as burning a question with Mr. Fitzgerald as if he were contemplating a personally conducted tour; and he is seriously troubled in his mind by the impossibility of discovering the exact site of the Old Curiosity Shop - not, it would seem, consoling himself with the explicit disposal of the subject which is to be found in the concluding words of the book. But, logically speaking, if you are going to accept the author's account of the place as being absolutely literal and exact, you must also accept and look upon as final the very plain statement that Kit, "sometimes took them to the street where she lived; but new improvements had altered it so much, it as not like the same. The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place. At first he would draw with his stick a square upon hthe ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon become uncertain of the spot, and could only say it was thereabouts, he thought, and that these alterations were confusing. Such as the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale which is told." The bearing of this last reflection, as the skipper of the Cautious Clara would have said, "lies in the application of it."
    For people, however, who look at the matter in Mr. Fitzgerald's way this is not enough; nor, to take another instance, are they satisfied to know that the "Maypole" Inn in "Barnaby Rudge" was taken from the fine old "King's Head" - still, I believe, in good preservation - at Chigwell. "Chigwell, my dear fellow," wrote Charles Dickens to John Forster in the early days of their friendship, "is the greatest place in the world ... Such a delicious old inn opposite the churchyard - such a lovely ride - such beautiful scenery - such a sexton!" They would not be content unless they knew for certain that the ground-plan of the Chigwell house was identical with that of the "Maypole" or that it was in the olden days veritably kept by a fat man who had a one-armed son, and stood in some awre of a celebrated talking raven; and then they would consider it necessary to follow the raven to Charles Dickens's stable and to find out exact particulars and details about him.
    I propose, in this article, to deal with a few of the cases in which it is actually known on Charles Dickens's own authority, or in which it is unmistakably obvious [-345-]



from international evidence, what were the places he describes; and I think I shall have but little dififculty in proving the absolute correctness of my contention. With mere unintelligent and unsupported fable, I do not intend to trouble myself - with the absurd credulity, for instance, which induces some travellers to believve, when they are told by the guides, whom they pick up at the hotels, that the house in Portsmouth Street, Lincoln's Inn, which has in some inexplicable way come to be labelled as the Old Curiosity Shop, has anything in the remotest degree to do with the story - I shall in no way concern myself. Only this very day I was told by a friend that the Pickwick Cottage at Dulwich was to be let; and surprised him not a little by assuring him that there exists no sort of evidence anywhere to induce anybody to believe that Charles Dickens, when he finally settled his hero down for life, had any particular house in view for him. That is only one of the numerous myths which abound in the land of Dickens sight-seers and collectors, the resolution of which into their original nebulosity would require more space than the Editors of the PALL MALL MAGAZINE are at all likely to give me, and more labour than I feel inclined to devote to the task.
    Two or three very striking illustrations of my view of the matter occur in "Bleak House," which contained until the extensive clearances and demolitions which were necessitated by the building of the Royal Courts of Justice, perhaps more recognisable neighbourhoods and houses - not being public places and simply described as such - than can be found in any of the book. But even these, except in one notable case, can only be identified (or could, for many of them have already disappeared) by reference to the context as well as to the actual description of them. There is absolutely only one such place that I ever saw, which would satisfy the claims of the sticklers for absolute accuracy. This is the horrible little burying ground in which Captain Hawdon was laid, and on the steps of which Lady Dedlock died - [-346-] 



"a hemmed in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene ... with houses looking in on every side, save where a reekly little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gates." So runs the description in the book, and so you will find the place to this day, on the left-hand side as you go down Russell Court - taking care of your pockets the while - from Catherine Street to Drury Lane, the only difference being that the burying ground has been decently covered over with asphalte and is now used as a playground for the slum children of those parts.
    A little farther east is Lincoln's Inn Fields; and No.50 on the west side of the square, where John Forster lived, was admittedly Mr. Tulkinghorn's house. But literal exactitude was by no means observed in the description of its rooms [-347-] in "Bleak House". To begin with, Forster's big room was on the ground floor, while Mr. Tulkinghorn's was upstairs - mainly, I think, because the staircase was found to be necessary for the working out of the situation on the evening of the murder. I do not clearly remember whether the Roman existed in fact or only in fancy. I do recollect very well that a truculent portrait by Maclise of Macready as Macbeth, in the cauldron scene with the witches, hung on the wall opposite the fireplcae, and was constantly present to my very juvenile mind as a kind of nightmore note to be equalled for its power of inspiring terror; but I am inclined to think that the Roman himself only existed in the mind's eye of the writer.
    Crossing "the Fields," we come to New Square, Lincoln's Inn, where Miss Flite had her first interview with Richard, and Ada, and Esther (the Courts in Old Square have long since been pulled down), and close to where, as Esther tells us, "slipping us out at a little side gate, the old lady stopped most unexpectedly in a narrow back street, part of some courts and lanes immediately outside the wall of the Inn." Here, at the south-est corner of Chichester Rents, which gives access from Chancery Lane to the side entrance to New Square, is - or was, for when I last saw them, a few weeks ago, "the Rents" were about to be pulled down - without doubt the house that served as the model for Mr. Krook's establishment. There was no difficulty at all about recognising Miss Flite's lodging at the top of the house, a "pretty large room, from which she had a glimpse of the roof of Lincoln's Inn," while outside the long low garret window was the parapet on which Mr. Krook's cat, Lady Jane, crouched with murderous design on Miss Flite's birds - the only parapet in the neighbourhood available for such a purpose, it may be observed. This is all plain sailing enough so far; but (alas for the photographic accuracy people!) Mr. Krook's house is described as having a house to the west of it, while this at the corner, and the "Old Ship" Tavern which unquestionably was the original of the "Sol's Arms" - it had a large room on the first floor in which the inquest must have been held - is opposite, instead of next door. Various houses have been claimed as having been Mr. Snagsby's in Took's Court (Cook's Court), Cursitor Street, and Mr. Jellyby's in Thavies Inn (opened to the world by the Holborn Viaduct, and still, apparently, astonished at its sudden publicity), but not even the smallest evidence exists to support any of these conjectures.
    Out of London also "Bleak House" affords a very conclusive proof that Charles Dickens very rarely thought it necessary to actually reproduce the first sketch in the finished picture. Writing to the Hon. Mrs. Richard Watson, he said, "In some of the descriptions of Chesney Wold I have taken many bits, chiefly about trees and shadwos, from observations made at Rockingham"; and, in like manner, the great drawing-room and the terrace walk before its windows were transferred from Rockingham to Chesney Wold. But Rockingham Castle stands on a breezy hill in Northamptonshire, and Chesney Wold is placed in a flat, watery Lincolnshire landscape, and in scarcely any respect except that which I have mentioned is there any likeness between the two houses.
    In "Great Expectations" is a singularly interesting example of the same principle of working. If there is one thing on which the professors of Dickens topography are agreed, it is that the village of Cooling, on the Thames and Medway marshes, is the actual village in which Pip and the Gargerys lived - the actual identical place, and nothing else. And a reference in "Forster's Life" confirms their faith. "It is strange," he writes, "as I transcribe the words, with what wonderful vividness they bring back the very spot on which we stood when he said he meant to make it the scene of the opening of his story - Cooling Castle ruins [-348-]



and the desolate church, lying out among the marshes seven miles from Gadshill." That Charles Dickens did start "Great Expectations" with Cooling village and church before him - the ruins of Cooling Castle are not even suggested in the book - is an undoubted fact, as I have heard from himself when walking in those parts. But a visit to the place itself will very soon demonstrate how quickly, though perhaps unconsciously, he altered and adjusted his scene in accordance with the requirements of his story. The marshes themselves are, of course, unaltered, and the fine descriptions of them in the book are extraordinarily close and true; but there is more than one church - the old parish church at Lower Higham for one - which would answer the general purpose quite as well as that at Cooling. That Cooling churchyard is that from which the original sketch was made is clear enough, not only by the author's own statement on the subkect, but also from the fact that it contains the "little stone lozenges, eacvh about a foot and a half long," which were sacred to the memory of Pip's little brothers and sisters, and implanted in his mindthe firm belief that "they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers pockets and had never taken them out in this state of existence." But so much of absolute exactitude in the way of description, as is otherwise contained in those parts of the book which deals with the marsh country, applies only to the landscape. Furthermore, it is worth of notice that, although Restoration House in Rochester was most certainly the original of Satis House in the book, and the Medway Hulks [-349-] are plain enough in the story, neither Rochester nor Chatham nor Gravesend in the least answers to Pip's market town, in the accounts of which there are no sailors, soldiers, fishermen, dockyards, Castle or Cathedral. On the other hand, when I read that "Mr. Pumblechook appeared to conduct his business by looking across the street at the saddler, who appeared to transact his business by keeping his eye on the coachmaker, who appeared to get on in life by putting his hands in his pockets and contemplating the baker, who in his turn folded his arms and stared at the grocer, who stood at his door and yawned at the chemist," I am irresistibly  reminded of a slack day in the main street of Rochester as I knew it twenty years and more ago.
    Other of Pip's residences were plainly enough described as having been in Garden Court in the Temple, and in Barnard's Inn, Holborn. The former house was pulled down years ago, and Pip would not be able to recognise Garden Court now - indeed, the Temple has been pulled about and altered in a most extraordinary fashion since Charles Dickens made it the scene of so many incidents in his books - while Barnard's Inn has been taken by one of the great City companies for its school But the Mercers have made their alterations gently enough, and in adapting the place to the requirements of their boys have retained the old hall, and the best of the old buildings, and Barnard's is very much improved since the time when Joe Gargery characterised it as a "close spot," and declared that he wouldn't keep a pig in it himself "not in the  case that I wished him to fatten wholesome and to eat with a meller flavour on him."
    Barnard's neighbour, Staple Inn, which figures so largely in "Edwin Drood," has undergone but little change, except on the south side; and even here the march of improvement has stopped short at Mr. Grewgious's house, with its S P T inscription. Down at Rochester, Eastgate House (the nun's house of the book), Minor Canon Row, the Gate House entrance to the Cathedral Close, and all the other "Edwin Drood" scenes, are little, if at all, altered. But it may be remarked that Charles Dickens, requiring a weir for the discovery by Mr. Crisparkle of Edwin's missing jewellery, placed one at Cloisterham, although, in fact, there is no such thing on the Medway, for a considerable distance above Rochester.
    "David Copperfield" has not been so much or so closely examined by the topographical commentators as most of the other books, probably for the reason that the fragment of autobiography which it contains, and the consequent pressing necessity for endeavouring to fit all the story of David into the known facts of Charles Dickens's life, has been felt to the proper subject for study in this connection. Down Yarmouth way all the localities have been carefully - if in some instances incorrectly - identified and there were, not many years ago, plenty of people who knew all about Blunderstone Rookery, and had had close acquaintance with Mr. Chillip, the meek little doctor. And yet Mr. Chillip was sketched from our family medical attendant in the old Devonshire Terrace days, and never had anything at all to do with Suffolk, while it is at least an open question whether Charles Dickens ever saw Blunderstone at all. Writing to Mrs. Watson about Lowestoft and the connection of all that country with "David Copperfield," he said, "I saw the name Blunderstone on a directrion-post between it and Yarmouth, and took it from the said direction-post for the book" - but he does not describe a visit to the place itself.
    I have seen in (American) print a triumphant account of the absolute identification of Miss Betsey Trotwood's house on the cliff at Dover, the principal evidence in the case relating to the green over which Miss Trotwood believed herself to have [-350-]

jurisdiction as regarded the incursions of donkeys; and very much impressed I should have been, no doubt, with the writer's industry and ingenuity, if I had not unfortunately happened to know of my own knowledge that he was altogether wrong. The Trotwood donkey-fights did not take place at Dover at all, but at Broadstairs; where a certain Miss Strong - a charming old lady who was always most kind to me as a small boy, and to whose cakes and tea I still look back with fond and unsatisfied regret - lived in a little double-fronted cottage in the middle of Nuckell's Place, on the sea front, firmly convinced of her right to stop the passage of donkeys along the road in front of her door. Never shall I forget being carried by a wilful donkey, who evidently enjoyed the fun, across this sacred ground, and seeing my old friend making vigorously hostile demonstrations at me with the hearth-broom. It was a long time before she could be brought to understand that I really had been an unwilling and perfectly innocent trespasser. Broadstairs, by the way, is distinguished by a characteristically baseless, but universally believed, Dickens tradition. It is said - indeed, it is hardly safe at Broadstairs to throw any doubt on the story - that a great part of "Bleak House" was written in the tall house by the coastguard station above the little pier, which was formerly called Fort House, but is now generally known as Bleak House. As a matter of fact, not a line of "Bleak House" was written there, although a good deal of "Copperfield" was.
    David Copperfield once lived in Buckingham Street, Strand; and so did Charles Dickens, before he took up his abode in Furnival's Inn, although the circumstance is not mentioned by Forster, and is not, I think, generally known. The rooms were, as described in the book, at the top of one of the end houses, and looked over the river and the dirty ragged foreshore, instead of having, as to-day, a brieght and cheerful view of the Embankment Gardens. Whether the railway bridge and [-351-] stations are pleasanter neighbours than old Hungerford Market - there was no bridge in those days - must be a matter of opinion. I should like to think that Charles Dickens lived at No.14, on the west side, as one of greatest friends, Clarkson Stanfield, had rooms there when he first began scene-painting; but William Etty, the painter, occupied the upper floors of that house all through the thirties, and Charles Dickens, if he lived in David Copperfield's rooms - as I have no doubt he did - must have kept house on the top floor of No.15 on the east side, a house which displays a tablet commemorating its one-time tenancy by Peter the Great, Czar of all the Russias.
    The construction of Holborn Viaduct, of Farringdon Road, and of New Smithfield, swept away number of interesting and real Dickens localities - the old "Belle Sauvage" on Snow Hill of "Nicholas Nickleby"; the filthy Field Lane, with its receivers of stolen goods, of "Oliver Twist", among others - while we can only wonder what sotr of people our fathers and grandfathers must have been to tolerate for so long the Smithfield Market of which we read in "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations". In Holborn there still stands the "Bull" of Martin Chuzzlewit, where, according to the unimpeachable authority Mrs. Prig, "the drinks is all good" - or were, at all events, in her time. Next door at the "Old Bell" is one of the few specimens of the old galleried inn-yards still left in the heart of London, which gives a very fair idea of what the "White Hart" in the Borough was befire it was modernised.
    The London of Mr. Pickwick has practically disappeared, but as we might now appropriatrely give "Pickwick" the sub-title of "Waverley," "'Tis Sixty Years Since", the fact is not surprising when we consider the extraordinary and far-reaching changes of all sorts which the latter half - or, for the matter of that, the last quarter - of a century has seen. Almost all the places and streets described in the book have been swept away or improved out of all knowledge. The "White Hart" in the [-352-]  Borough affords no trace of its former self; the "Golden Cross" is another house altogether, that from which Mr. Pickwick started for Rochester, and in which David Copperfield stayed, having been cleared bodily away to make room for the construction of Trafalgar Square; Mr. Perker's chambers in Gray's Inn - the Inn is also associated with Copperfield and Traddles - still remain, but the surrounding neighbourhood is unrecognisable; and Mr. Lowten would be  much puzzled to point out even the site of his favourite " Magpie and Stump". Perhaps the only Pickwickian scene which is practically unchanged is that of the famous Bardell and Raddle tea-party - the old " Spaniards" tea-gardens on Hampstead Heath. But even that is now threatened by the great new town which is fast springing up between Highgate and Finchley, and, indeed, all about that neighbourhood. Many of the country towns mentioned in "Pickwickc " have changed but little, and, as they are almost all described under their own names, do not impose any tax on the ingenuity of guessers. Of the exceptions we might, perhaps, be safe in reading Town Malling in Norwich for Eatanswill - making due allowance, in each case, for the author's heightening touches.
    There is, by-the-bye, an almost inexplicable slip in "Pickwick" in the account of Mr. Winkle's unpleasant experience in Royal Crescent, Bath, with Mrs. Dowler, Mr. Dowler and the sedan-chair. When Mr. Dowler, armed with a small supper knife, rushed into the street after Mr. Winkle, that gentlenman, it w ill be remembered, did not show fight, but "took to his heels, and tore round the Crescent, hotly pursued by Dowler and the watchman. He kept ahead, the door was open as he came round the second time; he rushed in" and so on. Unfortunately the manoeuvre here described is impossible of execution. Royal Crescent is really a Crescent, and Mr. Winkle could by no means have run round it. When you come to either end there is nothing to be done but to retrace your steps — a proceeding which would have had the effect of promptly confronting Mr. Winkle with the infuriated Dowler. Evidently, what Charles Dickens was thinking about when he wrote this description was the Circus, which is close to the Crescent; but this confusion by the writer of two actual places which he knew perfectly well is not encouraging for people who want to settle all the Imaginative topography on strictly scientific principles.
    And, as it is of the places, so also is it of the people. The number of individuals who have been positively and unhesitatingly identified as the originals of almost all the characters in Charles Dickens's books is absolutely overwhelming. The fact bears the highest testimony to the writer's power of endowing his fictitious characters with life, and is not the least of the many proofs of the singular kind of personal interest which the public has always taken in him and his books ; but it presents its points of difficulty too.
    I do not think that, when I was travelling all over the country giving Dickens Readings, and being hospitably entertained at all sorts of houses, and acquiring a remarkable experience of all sorts of hotels, I heard of more than fifty originals of Sam Weller - but I certainly heard of no fewer. Sam had been rgoom to Mr. This and gardener to Mr. That, and odd man at the "George," and ostler at the "King's Head," and had followed all sorts of similar avocations. As a rule he was dead when I heard of him, but occasionally still survived. In the latter case it seldom happened that he was available for interviewing purposes; and even when he was, it somehow always so fell out that an appointment could not be made. A good many peoiple who told me about the local Sam Weller clearly knew that he was a mere hallucination, but did not like to refuse public expression of belief in him, from the  [-353-]



feeling that he reflected some certain amount of credit on the town; but there were others who really had firm faith in the tradition and obviously conceived rather a low opinion of me if I hestitated a doubt. As for Mr. Weller Senior, I think I may safely say that I have never been in a town or village which as famous in the old coaching days without hearing of him. Mrs. Lynn Linton, who lived at Gadshill in early life, declares with all her usual positiveness that the real original man was one Chumley, who drove the Rochester coach, and, for all I know, she may be right. But my conviction is that Tony, like so many of Charles Dickens's characters, was a compound made up from observation of many men - "a kind of plaid," as Bob Sawyer has it. 
     Of course, many points of many people have been reproduced in Charles Dickens's books, but there are few, very few, cases in which absolute portraits are to be found. Of those, the bullying police magistrate in "Oliver Twist" is one, havinh been taken bodily from a Mr. Laing of Hatton Garden Police Court notoriety. Lawrence Boythorn is Walter Savage Landor. The original of Miss Mowcher found the portrait as lifelike that she was moved to bitter remonstrance, with the result that the little chiropodist's share in the working out of the plot of "David Copperfield" was entirely reconsidered and altered. One Shaw, a Yorkshire schoolmaster, claimed to be the very Squeers himself, because all the neighbours said he was so like him. Leigh Hunt was grievously hurt by Harold Skimpole, and, I think, reasonably; for it was almost impossible to separate the innocent peculiarities [-354-] of Hunt, which were made extensive use of, from the contempible characteristics of Skimpole.
    A letter which Charles Dickens wrote to Leigh Hunt at this time is very noteworthy as illustrating his method of work, as well as for its bearing on the point of view I have adopted in writing this paper. "Every one," it said, "in writing must speak from points of his experience, and so I of mine with you; but when I felt it was going too locse I stopped myself, and the most blotted parts of my MS. are those in which I have been striving hard to make the impression I was writing from un-like you. The diary writing I took from Haydon, not from you. I now first learn from yourself that you ever set anything to music, and I could not have copied that from you. The character is not you, for there are traits in it common to fifty thousand besides, and I did not fancy you would ever recognise it. Under similar disguises my own father and mother are in my books, and you might as well see your likeness in Micawber." Or, for the matter of that, the likeness of my grandfather, who was the original sketch for Micawber, but who, except as to the unfortunate circumstances which are detailed in the autobiographical fragment, and an incurable propensity for fine language and pompous letter-writing, resembled the grotesque figure in the book in no particular. Similarly, it was only my grandmother's somewhat involved and discursive style of narrative, and not the woman herself, that is reproduced in Mrs. Nickleby. Nor is "David Copperfield" in any sense an autobiography, except asa to the portion I have already indicated. Perhaps the fact that David was a parliamentary reporter, and afterwards a successful novelist, first led people (many people) into the mistake of supposing that it was, while the belief was confirmed by the publication of the autobiographical fragment in Forster's Life. But "Copperfield" is not an autobiography, all the same.
     There was another case in which Charles Dickens avowedly took a model, but departed from it so much that what is left looks almost like mere coincidence. This was John Sadleir, of infamous memory. "I shaped Mr. Merdle himself," Charles Dickens wrote, "out of that rascality." But, except that they were both egregious swindlers and robbers through the medium of a bank, and that both committed suicide when they found that detection  and punishment could not longer be avoided, there is nothing in common between the mean, sneaking rascal of "Little Dorrit" and the bold, pushing, adventuous Irish politician of the Tipperary Bank and the Royal Swedish Railway Company.
    I may add that I have known originals of Volumnia Dedlock, of Rosa Dartle, and of dozens of others, in the limited sense that certain salient peculiarities of these originals were added on to the characters of the story. Bits of Forster are scattered all over the books, in characters with which, as a whole, there is no possibility of identifying him. I went to school with a young lady who was in no respect like Miss Blimber, except that she was - a little in advance of her time only - an excellent classical scholar, and taught the boys in her father's school, but who, nevertheless, suggested the fair Cornelia. The Miss Strong whom I have mentioned had no sort of resemblance to Miss Trotwood, except as to the donkey craze. There is a little analysis of my own character, as it appeared to my father then, in "Great Expectations", although otherwise I had nothing to do with the book.
    Let me conclude by quoting the words of a writer in the Academy who, in an appreciative notice of Mr. Fitzgerald's book, said: "Dickens, like Turner, in the sister art of painting, like all real artists indeed, used nature, no doubt, but used it as being his slave and in no wise his master. He was not content simply to reproduce the places, persons, things, that he had seen and known. He passed them through the crucible of his imagination, fused them, re-combined their elements, changed them into something richer and rare, gave them forth as products of his art. Are we not doing him some disservice when we try to reverse the process?
    With these words I most cordially agree.

CHARLES DICKENS THE YOUNGER.
  

 

 

'The Old Curiosity Shop' Pall Mall Gazette 1st January 1884

[added 21st February 2018]
 

“I'm gettin' heartily sick on't!" exclaimed the lady of the house, a genial, pleasant soul, with humor in her eye, to our representative when he called upon her to ask permission to explore No. 14 Portsmouth street. And not without reason indeed, for Dickens' "Old Curiosity Shop" and the street where it stands are constantly crowded with visitors and sightseers. "And one well-dressed person," said my hostess, with a sniff of contempt, "asked me if he might take a brick away with him as a relic! 'I will smooth it down, and it shall be an heirloom in my family forever.' A lunatic, I call him. And who knows but he beats his wife?" But this gentleman, brimming over with sentiment, walked off with a brick under his coat, nevertheless. Many artists have visited the spot lately, for it is to be torn down, and many sketches from every point of the compass have been taken. Yesterday, in the short space of half an hour, a photographer blocked up Sheffield street with his camera, three reporters were busy taking notes, and two other gentlemen were hard at work sketching the ruins, much to the amusement of the odd fish who constitute the "neighbourhood." Even during the few minutes I spent in the upper regions of No.14 one lady (of a certain age) came up the creaking steps, peering in, apologized for the intrusion, viewed the chaos, remarked that it was a pity, and descended. “I come from Boston,” I heard her murmur. It may be said, en parethese, that a roaring trade is being done in little pictures of the exterior, which may be had for “2d. plain” and “4d. coloured”. Miss Anderson is a constant visitor (so I was told, and insists upon drinking a dish of tea in the parlor when the parlor is once more cozy and rejuvenated. “A charming young lady and so affable.”

"The Old Curiosity Shop" stands in the southwest corner of Lincoln's-inn fields, and occupies an angle of Portsmouth street, one window looking northwest, the other two facing Sheffield street. The red tiles and the overhanging roof have a quaint, old-fashioned air about them, and afford a pleasant relief from the hideous yellow plaster on which is painted in great vulgar letters the name with which it has been endowed. "Immortalized by Dickens," and just below in unholy contrast, "H. Poole. waste-paper dealer," some rag collector, who will give such an advertisement as many a pushing politician would give his eye for. Heavy joists give the house support now, and the yawning gap overhead shows the ruined mass of bricks and mortar. Half the construction has tumbled in, the other half remains intact. At the present, the house, which is said to be 300 years old, contains four rooms, two on the ground floor, and two above them, each pair being divided by a communication from one floor to the other. The lower room not left opens on to the street, and may best be described as a small space enclosed by numerous angles. Heavy sloping beams jut out from the low ceiling, the window of ancient make, the fireplace stands in one corner, in another a thin slit of a door open on to the yard at the back where the waste paper business is conducted. A little window made in the wooden partition looks into the other room, which is now black chaos, the theory being that these two were once united, and here was stored that marvellous collection, the suits of mail, the fantastic carvings, the rusty weapons, the figures in china, wood, iron and ivory, the tapestry and strange furniture.

Mounting the crooking staircase a few steps take one to Little Nell’s reputed bedroom, a dismal, gruesome apartment about 9ft square, and as many in height. One little window lets in what passes for light in Portsmouth-street, which serves only to reveal the gloominess of the surroundings. This is used as a bedroom by the occupants of the house, but at present it has the appearance of a receptacle for lumber. Most the space is occupied by an ordinary iron bedstead on which were a few dusty pictures, a meat-cover, and a doormat. A few chairs are on the floor, a few engravings and a plaster plaque of Dickens adorn the walls. The floor is thick with the dust from the ruins, and here and there are a few old hangings, odd bits of carpet, and some empty bottles. The fireplace is stone, painted black, and on the mantel-shelf is a model of a ship under a glass cover. In one corner is a quaint old cupboard. A portion of this little chamber is cut off by the top of the staircase, which is supposed to gain some light from a window covered with a heavy coat of yellow paint. Below this are fixed some shelves, where a few bundles of musty papers and old books lie neglected and forgotten. One lingers for a moment at the door, endeavouring to conjure up a vision of the most beautiful of Dickens’s creations, but one conjures in vain. Little Nell refuses to appear. Looking through a little window, a foot square, one secs the ruin in the next room, where the full stock has been felt, where now a mass of rubbish is strewn on the floor.

The controversy rages meanwhile with unabated vigour. But when all is said we fear the “Old Curiosity Shop” at No. 14 Portsmouth-street, is a sham. We have ventured to ask Miss Hogarth for any information respecting the house, but the locality was unfortunately never pointed out to her, and she is unable to speak authoritatively. “My impression is," she writes, "that the identifying of this particular house is a mistake ; but I always imagined the place to be more remote. I do not suppose that any one lives now who could throw any light on the matter. Mr. Forster might have known, and George Cattermole and Hablot Brown, certainly." It is pointed out that in the original edition of “Master Humphrey's Clock," Cattermole, who drew the picture of the interior in "The Old Curiosity Shop," showed the house with a step and a spacious portico ''reaching nearly as high as No. 14.; does in its entirety." And further, "at the conclusion of the story, Dickens wrote that Kit sometimes took his children to the street where Nell had lived, but new improvements had altered it so much it was not like the same. The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place." And again, Mr. Charles Tesseyman says that his brother occupied No. 14 between 1868 and 1877, and had the words "The Old Curiosity Shop" placed over the front "for purely business purposes, as likely to attract custom to his shop, he being a dealer in books, paintings, old china, and so on. Before that—that is, before my brother had the words put up—no suggestion had ever been made" that the place was the veritable house that Dickens immortalized.

All this excitement about what is really a very small matter is indeed a handsome tribute to the genius of Dickens. But the great novelist himself would have been the first to deprecate the storm of sentiment which is raging about this poor tumbledown tenement. The cynic may well smile softly to himself at these sham tears which are being shed in such profusion over the memory of Little Nell. For he need but go a score of yards away to find himself amidst the hideous shambles of Clare Market. There is revealed a network of black and sombre slums, upon which the sun never shines but to lighten up with a few dim rays the festering heaps of rubbish. North, south, east, west, in a circumscribed area run these grim and tortuous things called by courtesy streets. Here may be seen tottering, ramshackle houses, and protecting eaves, any one of which might with as great a degree of probability be selected as a competitor in the “Old Curiosity Shop.” Here are old shops with their cracked, dusty windows and repellent interiors, blocked up with what it is the custom to call bric-a-brac. And here may be seen men, women, and children who would gladly sit as models of low life to the next novelist in search of a character.

But “The Old Curiosity Shop" is doomed. At some not very remote period the traffic will be rolling; over its site and London will know it no more. Once on time a model of Shakspeare's house was built at the Crystal Palace for the edification of visitors. The Americans came and begged for it, imitation as it was. Here is a suggestion. Let those American admirers who come to worship at this Portsmouth-street Mecca start a subscription, and transport No. 14— bag and baggage, beams and bricks —bodily to New York, and set it up there in Madison-square. Or, better still; the great Barnum is always open to a bargain. His agent, Mr. Davis, is now in town. Let him buy it. Apparently the investment would be profitable, and the pilgrims would be none the less devout because the shrine lay at their own doors.

a late-19th century photograph ...

a contemporary photograph ...