7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Charles Dickens and his family home
Charles Dickens (1812–70) was a famed writer of Victorian literature, whose most famous works include Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Often considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, his writing is famous for its social commentary and observation of Victorian society. Louisa Price, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in London, shares seven lesser-known facts about Charles Dickens and the family home in which he wrote many of his famed novels
Charles Dickens loved decorating his home
Dickens cared a great deal about how his home looked. Here at the Charles Dickens Museum we hold letters in our archive detailing requests to the landlord for painting and cleaning at 48 Doughty Street (a Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury that Catherine and Charles Dickens called home from 1837–39).
Dickens made various changes to the property, particularly the drawing room. He removed the unfashionable dado rail [a decorative waist-high moulding round the wall of a room], hung wallpaper, and installed a fitted carpet and a veined marble hearth stone. Decorative items in our collection such as ostentatious gilt candlesticks illustrate Dickens’ preferred style.
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At Doughty Street and in subsequent homes, Catherine participated in decision-making about decorating, but she still had to contend with Dickens’ strong opinions on the matter. While travelling in northern Italy in 1844, Dickens wrote home to Catherine, urging her not to rearrange furniture in his absence: “Keep things in their places. I can’t bear to picture them otherwise.”
Charles Dickens worked from home
For the first half of his career Dickens worked from a study inside his family home, which would have been alive with the noise and bustle of young children, servants and visiting family members. At 48 Doughty Street, Dickens’ study was situated on the first floor, with a door leading into the drawing room. By the time he and Catherine left in 1839 they had three children under the age of three (Charley, Mamie and Katey), and employed four servants.
Dickens tended to keep to a strict routine of working in the morning without disturbance. There were, of course, exceptions to the rules: one day at Doughty Street, hearing the hilarity in the drawing room, Dickens left his study and joined his family, bringing with him his portable writing desk, ink pot, quill and paper. There he went on writing Oliver Twist, telling the family not to worry about him but rather to go on with their play.
Charles Dickens's house had plumbing and draining issues
Just like any other Londoner, Dickens experienced problems with draining and water supply into his homes. Upon leaving the property at Doughty Street in 1839 he complained to the landlord that “the drains... have been a serious annoyance to us, and although we have had the plumbers in the house half a dozen times, we have not been able to make them last our time without often receiving strong notice of their being in the neighbourhood”.
One article in Dickens’ weekly journal, Household Words, concerns a trip he and a friend made to assess a water pumping station off the river Thames. Dickens’ interest in water supply for Londoners hit close to home: letters written during his time at Tavistock House (his London home from 1851–60) include a complaint about intermittent water supply to the house from the New River Company.
Although Charles Dickens loved music, he had no talent for it
Both Charles and Catherine came from musically talented families, so it is little surprise that they kept a piano in their home. Letters recall how Dickens and his friend John Hullah composed pieces for the operetta The Village Coquettes on Dickens’ piano in Furnivals Inn in around 1836, and a cottage piano is listed in the inventory of another home in 1843.
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Though the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street does not possess a Dickens instrument, we have installed a late 18th-century Longman & Broderip piano – the kind a middle-class couple like Charles and Catherine would have owned. It is positioned in the drawing room, and each Christmas it is used for concerts to entertain our guests.
But although Dickens had a passion for music, he was not necessarily a great pianist. In a letter to the Daily News in around 1871, Dickens' old school chum John W Bowden recalled that Dickens had tried to learn music, but that one day their music master had given up teaching him the piano, declaring: “He had no aptitude for music, and it was robbing his parents to continue giving him lessons.”
Charles Dickens loved mirrors
Dickens is known to have loved mirrors. Several still hang in the drawing room of his final home at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent (where Dickens lived from 1856 until his death in 1870), and photographs of Dickens’ Swiss chalet summer house, where he spent much of the warmer months writing, show mirrors situated around his desk.
As well as being a decorative feature that brought more light into rooms, Dickens used mirrors in the process of writing his novels. His eldest daughter, Mamie Dickens, remembers a day she was ill and her father permitted her to lie on the sofa in his study while he worked. She recalls: “He suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making... for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.”
Dickens immortalised some of his pets through taxidermy
The Dickens family had many pets, ranging from a canary called Dick to a series of dogs including Mrs Bouncer the pomeranian and a large mastiff called Turk. One of the more famous pets was Grip the raven, who died unexpectedly after consuming paint. Dickens had Grip stuffed, and the creature now resides in the Philadelphia Free Library. Grip is believed to have been the inspiration behind the raven in Barnaby Rudge (1841).
Grip was followed by another raven, ‘Grip the second’, and when painting a portrait of the Dickens children in 1841 (pictured below), Daniel Maclise includes Grip sitting behind the siblings. This portrait is today on display at the Charles Dickens Museum.
A pet kitten named Bob, who was known for his devotion to the writer, was also memorialised through taxidermy like the original Grip. When Bob died, Dickens made his paw into a letter opener. This is now on display in the New York Public Library.
Charles Dickens was a bit of a party animal
Dickens was in his element when hosting, and Christmas presented the perfect opportunity to invite friends and family to his home for meals and parties. Catherine and Charles’s eldest son, Charley, was born on Twelfth Night (the last day in the Christmas season), and the couple celebrated with a joint birthday/Twelfth Night party, which grew over the years to include dancing, magical performances and even amateur theatricals.
At one such party in the 1850s, Dickens staged Fielding’s Tom Thumb, casting his children in various roles and himself as the ghost. English novelist William Thackeray was among the audience, and is reported to have fallen off his chair with laughter at the performance.
Over the festive period at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, visitors can enjoy candlelit tours, evening performances of A Christmas Carol, and a new exhibition titled ‘A Christmas Carol Reimagined’. To find out more, visit www.dickensmuseum.com
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2015