This month, I am delighted to introduce readers of London Calling to my friend, Lucinda Hawksley. She is an acclaimed author with a very famous ancestor who knew London very well indeed – Richard Lamberth
Dickens’s relationship with London
By Lucinda Hawksley
Although Charles Dickens is usually described as a “London author”, he had a love-hate relationship with the city. London was not the place of his birth, nor the place of his death, and, although he lived in London for many years, he often sought to escape both it and the British Isles. Dickens’s childhood was spent in Kent, a place to which he returned in later life, when he was able to afford a grand home there. Kent was where he remembered he and his siblings at their happiest. They grew up near Chatham, as their father, John Dickens, was a clerk working for the Navy at Chatham Docks.
In 1822, when Charles Dickens was 10, John Dickens’s job was moved to the naval offices in Somerset House, in London. The whole family moved to London, except for Charles, who remained at boarding school in Kent. Then, as now, London was the most expensive place in Britain in which to live and John’s wages did not reflect the extra expense of having to relocate to the city. As a result, John, who was never good with money, was soon in serious debt.
In 1823, Charles Dickens had to leave his school, as his parents could not afford the fees, and by early February 1824, he was working 10 hours a day, six hours a week in a London factory. His meagre wages were unable to save the family finances and, on February 20, 1824, John Dickens was incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, in Southwark.
Within a few weeks, Charles’s mother, Elizabeth, and all his younger siblings had moved into John’s prison cell, unable to afford rent anywhere else. As his older sister Frances was boarding as a star pupil at the Royal Academy of Music, Charles had to live by himself at an unfriendly lodging house, which he hated. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that Dickens’s feelings about London were mixed. His very earliest experiences of the city were of being a place where all the bad things started to happen.
From childhood onwards, Dickens was prone to depression and, when he was feeling at his lowest, the British climate would make him feel even lower. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, a constant smog hung above London constantly. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens described London with the harsh words, “Such a black shrill city … such a gritty city; such a hopeless city, with no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky; such a beleaguered city”.
Yet, despite the fact that he often sought to “escape” London, there was something about the city that always drew Dickens back, from all over the world. In the 19th century, London was the world’s largest city and whenever he was away from it, Dickens missed its excitement and the throng of people. He would set off to exotic places, often stating that he needed quiet or sunshine or mountains or the countryside in order to write, so would move his whole family to a British seaside town or Switzerland or rural Italy – yet almost as soon as he arrived, he would find himself hankering after the noise and bustle and rich characters of London.
In a letter to his friend John Forster, he described London as a “magic lantern” (a popular children’s toy, in which coloured slides could be projected onto a wall, a little like an early cinema). In 1844, having moved his whole family, including the servants, to live just outside Genoa for a year, he wrote to Forster that he had never “staggered” with his writing so much. This he attributed to having moved away from London to live in Italy: “I seem as if I had plucked myself out of my proper soil … and could take root no more until I return to it”.
Dickens suffered from insomnia and this led to some of his greatest writing about London, the 1860 article ‘Night Walks’, published in his series, The Uncommercial Traveller. In it, Dickens became intimate with the problems of homelessness (which he called ‘houselessness’) and the article gave a very sympathetic view of the people who owned the city at night, when almost everyone else was safely tucked up in bed:
“The restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep, formed one of the first entertainments offered to the contemplation of us houseless people. It lasted about two hours. We lost a great deal of companionship when the late public-houses turned their lamps out, and when the potmen thrust the last brawling drunkards into the street; but stray vehicles and stray people were left us, after that…. At length these flickering sparks would die away, worn out – the last veritable sparks of waking life trailed from some late pieman or hot-potato man – and London would sink to rest….
Walking the streets under the pattering rain, Houselessness would walk and walk and walk, seeing nothing but the interminable tangle of streets … And so by faster and faster degrees, until the last degrees were very fast, the day came, and I was tired and could sleep. And it is not, as I used to think, going home at such times, the least wonderful thing in London, that in the real desert region of the night, the houseless wanderer is alone there. I knew well enough where to find Vice and Misfortune of all kinds, if I had chosen; but they were put out of sight, and my houselessness had many miles upon miles of streets in which it could, and did, have its own solitary way.”
Even after Dickens moved to Gad’s Hill Place, his much-loved home near Rochester in Kent, Dickens continued to spend much of his time in London, frequently staying overnight at his office in Covent Garden. He also rented a London townhouse for several months of the year, so his unmarried daughter, Mamie, and his sister-in-law Georgina could enjoy the social whirl of the London Season. London was a place he tried to leave behind, but was never quite able to do so, it always pulled him back.
Ironically, he was not even allowed to leave the city after his death. Although Dickens stated in his will that he wished to be buried in Rochester, that was overruled by Queen Victoria and the Dean of Westminster Abbey. So, instead of being interred in Rochester Cathedral, Dickens’s grave is in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey, where he remains revered as one of the most famous of all Londoners.
Lucinda Hawksley is an author and lecturer, a Patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London and a great great great granddaughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens. Her books include biographies of the artists Lizzie Siddal, Princess Louise and Kate Perugini (née Dickens), as well as ‘Dickens and Christmas’ and ‘Charles Dickens and his Circle’. She has just completed ‘Dickens and Travel’, which will be published by Pen & Sword in late 2021. Find out more at www.lucindahawksley.com or @lucindahawksley.