Dear Anglophiles: It's February 7, the birth date of Charles Dickens. The great writer was born 201 years ago today, and I dedicate today's post to him.
I once stayed in London near his 48 Doughty Street home, which is now the Charles Dickens Museum. On my first visit to the museum, I arrived late in the evening, after hours. Alone, in the dark, I slowly ran my hand across the door...then across the door frame...then across bricks on the home's facade...all the while hoping the great Victorian writer himself had likewise touched those spots. It was electrifying! Then I sat down on the front step, leaned against the door, and contemplated all the social injustices that Dickens wrote about and that he opened readers' eyes to. I think it’s fair to say that by raising social consciousness through his writings, Dickens made the world a better place.
Charles and his family moved to London when he was twelve, in 1824, and soon afterward, his father was thrown into the appalling Marshalsea Debtors Prison—an event that apparently haunted Charles for life. It also provided great fodder for his writings. After his father’s imprisonment, young Charles went to work in a factory, but over the course of several years, with Charles’ keen ability to read and write and his nearly photographic memory, he then began a career of editing and writing. At the still-wet-behind-the-ears age of 24, Dickens became a literary star with his Pickwick Papers. He went on to write scores of novels, plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, and he enjoyed commercial and literary success his entire life.
Today, numerous tour operators offer Dickensian London walks. (Click for INFO) Or with a good map, tourists can go it alone. Such an amble may include Cheapside, a busy street today but a market street in Dickens’ time. (Pip describes the area in Great Expectations.) Or you may stroll the streets of Saffron Hill, mentioned in Oliver Twist, and Snow Hill, referenced in Nicholas Nickleby. Or visit the St. George’s churchyard where a small portion of the dreaded Marshalsea Debtors Prison still stands—the prison where Charles’ father languished, and where Amy’s father, in Little Dorrit, languished too.
Two must-sees on any Dickens tour should include the Charles Dickens Museum and The Old Curiosity Shop.
<- The Dickens Museum: A previous home of the great writer and where he wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist , finished the Pickwick Papers, and started Baraby Rudge. He lived in numerous homes across London, buying larger and larger houses as his family grew—but this home, at 48 Doughty Street, is the only one that remains.
Note: If you’re weary of the touristy areas of London, I highly recommend that you visit this little museum, located in the quaint Bloomsbury university area. Tea and sweets or a light lunch in its charming cafe will revive you in no time!
Whether or not this is the actual shop that Dickens wrote about in his novel of the same name is debated, but most authorities believe it is, and Dickens verifiably visited the shop. Built in 1567, during the Elizabethan era, the dwelling is the oldest in London. It sits in an unlikely spot, in an out-of-the-way intersection in the Holborn area, at 13-14 Portsmouth Street—truly an off-the-beaten path for tourists, which, of course, increases its appeal.
When I visited The Old Curiosity Shop, I traipsed around a bit before zeroing in on it. Be persistent if you, too, get lost. When I finally arrived and found the shop door locked, I was disappointed. (All this work for nothing?!) To my utter surprise, however, when I knocked on the door, a man eventually arrived. He looked Asian. When he opened the door, he looked at me questioningly, as though he were confused as to why I was there.
Me: Is this The Old Curiosity Shop?
Me: May I come in and look around?
I sidled past the man and entered the quirky little pink-walled shop with its uneven floorboards and low, sloping roof, and there I saw….shoes. Of all things--shoes! Nowadays Daita Kimura designs and produces hand-made footwear in the shop. The shoes are very…well, curious.
Take a gander for yourself: Enter THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP (See what I mean? Curious, right?)