Walking “Dickens’s London”

Image of The Playhouse Theatre, London showing Simon Callow's "The Mystery of Charles Dickens" with sign reading "Thrilling Images of Dickens's London"
The Playhouse Theatre, London

“Thrilling images of Dickens’s London.” So proclaims The Playhouse theatre where Simon Callow’s “The Mystery of Charles Dickens” recently began a two-month run; just a few hundred yards away I began an afternoon of walking tours in which I was aiming to unpack these exact words, the notion of “Dickens’s London”.

As part of its Charles Dickens at 200 series, The Guardian have produced a series of audio walks based around Dickens’s life and works. Each tour includes an audio track which can be downloaded to an MP3 player and a map of the route to follow. There are five walks in total, and I chose to try out David Copperfield and The Heart of the City, intrigued as to what experience of “Dickens’s London” would be created through these tours.

David Copperfield, as the first podcast begins by telling us, is Charles Dickens’s most autobiographical novel. First published in 1850, Dickens drew on his early experiences of the city in his account of David’s life in London, which begins with hardship and poverty in his childhood years but develops into a fuller enjoyment of the city’s delights as David becomes a young man. This walking tour therefore treads a route that blurs the boundaries of life and work, tracing locations associated both with the novel and with Dickens’s life. Led by Jon Henley of The Guardian and Simon Winder of Penguin, the walk gives an informative exploration of Dickens’s London connections and draws out the rich history of London’s change and development throughout the Victorian period and beyond.

Image of York Water Gate on the Victorian Embankment, London
York Water Gate

The sense of change is instilled right from the start of the route at the York Water Gate in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (pictured). Built in 1626 the gate once marked the edge of the Thames, its steps leading down into the water; the building of the Victoria Embankment in the 1860s pushed the river back by some 140 metres and the gate now stands dwarfed by the impressive feat of Victorian engineering that surrounds it – its sunken appearance seeming somewhat resonant with some of Dickens’s architectural structures. Behind this is Buckingham Street where Dickens lived (at number 15) as a young boy, and where David Copperfield first lives on his arrival in London; close by is Hungerford Bridge and the location of the Blacking Factory where some of Dickens’s most formative years were spent. From here, the tour travels up to Charing Cross Station and down the Strand into some of Dickens’s favourite places in the city: the Adelphi Theatre, Rules Restaurant, and the Lamb & Flag pub.

The audio commentary provided a compelling account that detailed how the sites would have appeared in Dickens’s years and explored the formative impression that these places had on Dickens as an author. This was accompanied by extracts from the novels recounting David Copperfield’s experiences of inns, lodging houses, and the theatre, and vivid descriptions of strolling around the city. The extracts made for entertaining walking between locations – there was something fascinating about listening whilst walking through busy streets that made many details of a familiar text come vividly to life in a way that I hadn’t expected, giving a real sense of seeing both the city and the novel afresh. Similarly, whilst much of the biographical information on this tour will be familiar to Dickens scholars, there are plenty of intriguing details – explanations of street names, travels through hidden alleyways, and anecdotes of Dickens’s life in the city – that make for a compelling narrative.

Image of Maiden Street, London showing Rules Restaurant
Maiden Street, London

The focus of the second tour is the City of London and associated themes of finance, trade and commerce in Dickens’s works. Key historical sites of London’s financial district – Leadenhall Market, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, and the East India Company – provide the stimulus for guides Jon Henley and Veronica Horwell to talk about the changes in trade and finance during the Victorian period, from the expansion of trade routes throughout the British Empire to the shifts in business practice within the City. Dickens’s attitudes to money, particularly debt, are examined through reference to works like Dombey and Son, and the commentary also looks at Dickens’s idea of the law, moving through the College of Arms and the Old Bailey, before ending on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Image of camel stonework above the HSBC building
Camel stonework above the HSBC building

This tour is more diverse in its scope, but nonetheless successful in revealing some fascinating details of the city that otherwise go unnoticed: what was once the East India Company is now a bank, but the camels above its doors still remain as a tell-tale sign of its past; in the courtyard of a Victorian office building, the tour revealed a small abandoned graveyard; and tucked in corners of back-alleys are pubs such as Pickwick’s favourite The George and Vulture.

I was particularly interested in how the negotiation between past and present was handled and shaped by the experience of walking the streets. The tours often drew attention to features of the present London landscape – for example, noting that Warren’s Blacking Factory is now the rather foreboding black building of PriceWaterhouse Coopers. At times, too, the city today threw in its own chance happenings that provided apt accompaniment to the themes discussed: a passage from Dombey and Son about the destructive building of the railway line was sharply echoed by the cavernous space that has currently been created by a huge building site opposite the station. It was one of many ordinary, everyday features that I’d otherwise have paid no attention to, but which suddenly became re-perceived, refocused, in the context of the tour.

Image of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, London
St Paul's Cathedral, London

It’s this that I felt was most interesting, and ultimately most successful, about the idea of “Dickens’s London” that these tours created. I can admit now to an initial scepticism about the idea of retracing Dickens’s London and the kind of “real” experience that this purports to give: how can we meaningfully talk about stepping back in historical time or experiencing “Dickens’s London”? But for me, these tours were most interesting not so much in what they added to an understanding of Dickens’s life and works but rather in the way they created an experience of the city through Dickens:  using fragments of Dickens’s works to open up the city afresh, bringing London into focus in new ways, these tours encouraged the walker to re-sharpen their perspectives and perceive the city anew.

And for that they were perfectly “Dickensian” in their offerings because whatever else “Dickens’s London” might mean, above all Dickens’s vision of London is about re-seeing the familiar aspects of the city that we’d typically gloss over, and creating a narrative that explores the power of place in shaping our everyday experiences. Walking Dickens’s London can’t ever recreate a “real” experience of Dickens’s London but this did, rather more successfully, recreate London through Dickens.

Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study, and teaches nineteenth-century literature in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. She also writes on her research blog and you can find her on Twitter @cemathieson


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