No city is more associated with the word of Charles Dickens than London.
He lived there most of his life; he worked there; he used London as the setting or a main setting for most of his novels (including for A Tale of Two Cities). He referred to London as his “magic lantern,” a reference to a projector of images that became popular in the 19th century.
In 2012, for the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, the Museum of London published an extensively illustrated book, Dickens’s Victorian London 1839 – 1901, by Alex Werner and Tony Williams. The book accompanied the museum’s exhibition of “Dickens and London” – and it was the largest exhibition the museum had undertaken up to that time.
The exhibition closed, of course, after its scheduled run. But the book has lasted.
Werner and Williams assembled hundreds of photographs, drawings, and other illustrations. They could draw upon a wealth of information – the Victorian Age, and the life of Dickens, coincided with the birth and widespread popularity of photography. In the late 1870s, recognizing that so much of old London was fast disappearing as the city continued to rebuild itself, a special effort was made to photograph as many vanishing landmarks as possible, and the authors draw upon that treasure trove as well.
A few coaching inns remained, and photographs of those are included. They provide a physically concrete idea of what Dickens utilized for books such The Pickwick Papers. Landmarks of old and new London include St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Temple Bar, Lincoln Inn Fields, old houses, Devil’s Acre (the slum that existed near Westminster Abbey), Parliament, the Royal Exchange, and other structures and areas associated the Dickens’s books.
The book contains a section on slums – few authors wrote as extensively as Dickens did about London’s slums. Also included are markets and street life, including Covent Garden; the docks and the River Thames; industry, which show how closely workers lived to the industrial places they worked; the construction of the railways and the great stations (in one photograph, Paddington Station in the 19th century looks almost exactly like the same scene in the 21st century; home life and studio photograph portraits; and the suburbs.
Werner is the head of History Collections at the Museum of London, and has curated several exhibitions, including “Dickens and London.” He’s also the author of Dockland Life (2000); Journeys through Victorian London (2001); Jack the Ripper and the East End (2008); and Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die (2014). Williams is the associate editor of the Dickensian and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Buckingham. He’s also involved in the Dickens Journals Online project.
To read the text and pore over the photographs and illustrations of Dickens’s Victorian London is to immerse oneself in the scenes and settings of so many novels and stories by Dickens. The book is a delight.
A Week of Dickens: I’ve devoted the posts this week, for no ostensible reason other than I admire his novels, to a discussion of the life, works, and resources for Charles Dickens. Tomorrow will conclude the series with a listing of some of the resources available on the subject of his life, writings, novels, and the London he knew.
Top illustration: London Bridge in Dickens’s time.