Authors: Anna Quindlen
What's devastated, however, is the majesty of the monument, which was designed to be seen by anyone crossing London Bridge from the south bank of the Thames. Now it is a little like finding a needle, not in a haystack, but in a box of blocks, the large ungainly office towers around it, including that monument to the spread of American capitalism, the London headquarters of Merrill Lynch. And at the Tower of London, where I squatted in awe on the green at a sign explaining that Anne Boleyn's bones were beneath the ground nearby, I was amazed to see that the ravens that once picked at the heads on pikes at Tower Bridge were still in residence, then a bit dispirited to discover that their wings were clipped so that they could stay within the Tower close in their now purely ornamental capacity. St. Paul's Cathedral has a revolving door for the convenience of the tourists and the staff; nearby is a pleasant Japanese restaurant, the only place in the financial district open
for lunch on a Saturday. Thus did I make my peace with modernism, as most of us do, through convenience. Over sushi I read
and thus mollified myself with tall tales of Fleet Street within walking distance of the place itself.
ot too far from Fleet Street, in that part of Bloomsbury near to Gray's Inn, there is a street without the feeling of insulation and isolation the Forsytes must have had in Montpelier Square. Even its name takes it down a peg from Pall Mall or nearby Mecklenburgh Square: Doughty Street. History tells us that there were once porter's lodges at either end, and gates that were closed and locked at night, creating an oasis within the bustle of the area. But there is none of that now. Rows of identical houses peer at one another from across a fairly busy avenue. None stands out from the others except that there is one
that has a sandwich board on the sidewalk inviting passersby inside.
Of all the writers who have made London their palette, their paint, their turf and their home, Charles Dickens is the gargantua. Inside the Doughty Street house it is clear that it has always been so, although this was where he lived before his assumed greatness became monumental and his public readings became as popular as public hangings had once been. The memorabilia that has been assembled by The Dickens Fellowships, whose members around the world take Dickens as seriously as the Archbishop of Canterbury takes Jesus, cover the full range of a career that spanned thirty-five years and included, among other works,
David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Bleak House,
A Tale of Two Cities.
(A rabid Dickensianâand is there any other kind?âI cannot bear to leave it at that. There is also
Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son, Nicholas Nickleby,
A Christmas Carol.
Until the publication of the Harry Potter books, Dickens may well have been the British writer most often read by American schoolchildren, usually because his work was assigned to them. He is also largely responsible for a kind of back-alley view of London that prevails to the present day. Although literary critics tend to treat him a little like a happy
fantabulist and a talented hackâ“Dickens could never have written such a passage,” Oxford professor John Carey writes dismissively, quoting Thackeray approvingly in an introduction to an edition of
âhis view of London, if not its people, is often astonishingly dark.
Along with some of the more florid detective novelists and the song “A Foggy Day In London Town,” written by the American George Gershwin, Dickens may be singlehandedly responsible for the common perception that the weather may frequently render London's streets so impassable as to be impossible. In the very beginning of
after introducing mud so deep that prehistoric creatures might still be expected to be crawling out of the ooze, he continues, with the lack of restraint that is his hallmark, “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.” And so on and on in a paragraph that contains the word “fog” thirteen times, as well as five semicolons.
I may have been blessed in terms of timing, but I haven't encountered the kind of weather that has become the ruling London clichÃ©. Instead, I've always been charmed by the light, which seems to me to have
a silver-gilt quality that renders the atmosphere serious and expectant. I love that golden, almost edible light in Italy and the French Riviera, but it seems to me the meteorological opposite number of deep thoughts. London weatherâthe chill spring, the light rain, the dove-gray skyâtelegraphs moments of moment and the tramp-tramp of real life. And I have never encountered much of an English fog, and certainly not the sort of pernicious blanket of dirty black that Dickens delights in describing.
The passage always recalls to me my first run-in with the notion that Dickens was a bit of a blowhard. When I brought home
in my book bag, assigned to read it in seventh grade (a terrible idea, as though within our suburban, center-hall colonials we twelve-year-olds would naturally relate to the prepubescent Oliver as he was orphaned, lost, and steered toward a life of crime), my mother commiserated with me about the rigors of reading Dickens. “He describes every leaf on every tree in every street in every town,” she said.
This is a pretty fair assessment of the sort of detail the writer piles on (and which detractors assign to the fact that he was filling magazine pages, since many of his books were first serialized), but it so happened that I was a leaf-tree-street-town sort of person and, later, the same sort of writer. And there was something about the
chapter I had read surreptitiously in the classroom, during (I'm pretty sure) a lesson on oblique and obtuse angles, that had simply gotten to me. It was the moment of the orphan's birth: “There was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration.” It was a combination of the arch and the archaic that spoke to me. Perhaps it was all those years reading the simple serviceable prose of the New Testament in Catholic school; I was dying for something with some potatoes and two veg along with the meat.
From his perch in the comfortable Victorian starter house that has now become a museum to his geniusâdining room, morning room, drawing room, dressing room, but not much room for servantsâDickens created an indelible London in novels that merged storytelling with social commentary. But the fog was the least of it. One word-picture of an area near St. Paul's by the Thames in
describes “an old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots.” Oliver Twist finds himself living with Fagin in rooms in which “the mouldering shutters were fast closed: the bars which held them were screwed tight into the wood, the only light which was admitted, stealing its way through round holes at the top, which made the rooms more gloomy and filled them with strange shadows.” A visitor can take the Tube to London's most notorious neighborhoods, and not see anything that approaches the dingy squalor of Dickens's London. This is either a tribute to urban renewal or literary overstatement.
Charles Dickens during his visit to the United States in 1867-68
Unsurprisingly, many of the books grew out of autobiography. The Dickens who was put to work labeling bottles in a blacking factory is mirrored in
The boy whose father was sent to debtors' prison, along with his entire family, grew up to reflect the experience in
And the months he spent in the office of a firm of Gray's Inn attorneys informed the intractable litigation Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the suit at the center of
that has made it the essential novel about the grinding inexorability of the self-perpetuating legal systems of all nations.
In the Doughty Street house there is a rather famous painting of Dickens by R. W. Buss, who was one of the original illustrators of
The Pickwick Papers.
It shows the familiar figureâfor it is a measure of Dickens's fame that unlike virtually every other novelist, his face with its long beard and poufs of hair is quite recognizableâsurrounded by a succession of tiny figures representing the characters in his novels.
The painting was never finished, and most of the figures are in black and white, sketched in lightly, ghostly. They have a sort of bothersome swarmlike air to them, as though they are buzzing around his head with the annoying insistence of insects, and perhaps they were, not as fictional figures but as elements of Dickens's past, from which he would have been happy to be free. (And
was during much of his lifetime. Only a few intimates knew of Dickens's tortured past, although others could have divined it through the telltale mixture of confidence and self-doubt he carried always with him. In an 1885 book on the history of English literature, for example, the writer is described as merely moving from Portsmouth to London with his family. No blacking factory, no debtors' prison.) No wonder the London of his novels is both a place in which fortune can be found and in which degradation lurks as well. “Midnight had come upon the crowded city,” he wrote in
“The palace, the night cellar, the jail, the madhouseâthe chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness, the rigid faces of the corpse and the calm sleep of the childâmidnight was upon them all.”
In Buss's portrait, Dickens sits near a handsome wooden desk with a slant top. It is the same desk that is pictured in an engraving in the Dickens house with the sentimental title “The Empty Chair,” an engraving done on the day of Dickens's death in 1870. And the selfsame desk sits in what was the writer's study in the Dickens House Museum, entombed in a glass case like a fragment of the True Cross.
The case bears witness to the other Dickens, the opposite number of the impoverished boy tormented by his father's disgrace. Critics have often found the
writer's novels unpersuasive because they tend to divide into two parts, the black hole of poverty, despair, and decay, and an inordinately satisfactory salvation, usually by the good people of the new middle class. (Unlike many English writers, almost no one with a title or an estate turns up in Dickens. The well-to-do tend to be the sort of people that Jane Austen's characters describe as “in trade.”) The man himself found this formula persuasive because it had been the story of his life, and its reality must have been as real to him as the enormous and ornate Spanish mahogany sideboard that sits against one wall of the dining room in Doughty Street and which Dickens lugged from one home to another after buying it in 1839. Like Scrooge in
A Christmas Carol,
Dickens was able to leave his past behind.
But his liberation came not through the salvation of spirits but through that most modern mechanism of re-creation: He became a self-made man, then a celebrity, that thing that makes a person simultaneously both more and less than they truly are. This was comparatively rare before the age of mass communications, and rarer still for writers. Rare indeed for writers of any literary meritâby contrast Jane Austen wrote under the pseudonym “A Lady,” and Milton's first publisher of
was a bookseller who gave the writer five pounds up front and
promised another five after 1,300 copies of the first edition were sold.
In his own lifetime, Dickens milked his notoriety for all it was worth in a way recognizable even to today's readers of tabloids and
magazine (in the U.K.) or
(in the U.S.). Copies of the sheet music for the David Copperfield polka and the Pickwick quadrille are framed and hung on the walls of the Doughty Street house, along with theater programs of plays based upon his work and others in which he appeared. He loved to participate in theatrical productions; he dressed extravagantly and socialized constantly, did reading tours in both England and America at which he was mobbed by fans. He even was pestered by that recognizable celebrity accoutrement, the sycophant relation; Dickens's impecunious father, who had forced him into the blacking factory as a boy with his spending habits, dogged him when he became a public figure. As soon as
became a success, the elder Dickens turned up at his son's publisher, cadging a loan he would never repay.
The Doughty Street house, to which the writer moved his family when only the first of his ten children had been born, was just a way station in his meteoric rise. It was vacated for a larger house just south of Regent's Park, a rich man's house Dickens himself described as “a house of
great promise (and great premium), undeniable situation and excessive splendor” with the novelistic address of 1 Devonshire Terrace. That house is gone now, as is his later home, the Gad's Hill Place house in which he died. Dickens's wife Catherine was as fungible as those homesâa starter marriage, perhaps, mirrored in the unsatisfactory relationships with pretty and tractable young women in several of the novels. (David Copperfield, for one, extricates himself from his starter marriage through the fortuitous death of his “child wife,” Dora.) Dickens's rise reads as though he was writing the original celebrity primer, minus the drugs: At the height of his fame, he left Catherine for a young actress.
Across the street from the Doughty Street house is another, almost identical building with one of the ubiquitous blue plaques. This one reads “Sydney Smith, 1771â1843, Author and Wit lived here.” How extraordinarily depressing it must have been for Sydney Smith, author and wit, as the career of the gangly man across the street inflated like a hot-air balloon until finally the four-story terrace house would no longer hold it:
in 1839. Even a writer many decades removed is breathless with admiration and envy, especially after reading a visitor's description of an evening at Doughty Street: