Facelift of writer's home a Dickens of a restoration

Donors help fund the transformation of a museum to the man who shaped Christmas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 2:36am

The London townhouse where Charles Dickens penned Oliver Twist and fathered two of his 10 children has just reopened after a £3.1 million (HK$39.06 million) facelift as the climax of the bicentenary of his birth.

The Georgian edifice in Bloomsbury - now the Charles Dickens Museum - has been refurbished in time for Christmas, a tradition that the author helped develop with his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol.

"Dickens didn't exactly invent Christmas, but he was instrumental in shaping Christmas as we celebrate it today," says Florian Schweizer, the museum's director.

According to Schweizer, A Christmas Carol and Dickens's other related stories and books "redefined the way people go into Christmas: they think about others, about philanthropy, about charity as a key component".

The museum has been refurbished mainly with money from Britain's Lottery: the Heritage Lottery Fund gave £2.4 million. Coaxed by the Dickens bicentenary, other donors gave the rest.

Before, the museum was "a very static environment, with a few display cases scattered about, and random objects put inside", not to mention linoleum flooring in some areas, says Schweizer. "What we now have is a themed, atmospheric museum," he says. "You can read information about Dickens, but you can also just enjoy the space as a beautiful recreation of a Victorian interior."

Twenty-five-year-old Dickens originally rented the house for £80 in 1837. It was located near the staid law offices of Chancery Lane, as well as the seedy thieving dens that inspired the character of Fagin (in Oliver Twist).

"With the success and the money that he'd earned from the publication of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was able to step up the social ladder," Schweizer says. "He was gladly accepted by the landlord, because Boz, his pen name, was a very strong currency at the time."

Dickens described the house as a "frightfully first-class family mansion, involving awful responsibilities". It consisted (as now) of six rooms on three floors, three attic rooms and a basement, and was on a gated street. Dickens employed a cook, a housemaid, a nurse, and a manservant or groom, according to the cash book of household expenses he kept.

The tour starts in the small, ground-floor dining room, where Dickens threw dinners so lavish they looked unaffordable.

On the dining table are blue China plates picturing regular attendees, including author William Thackeray. A display case showcases the gold-rimmed porcelain they all dined on - emblazoned with the socially ambitious Dickens's initials and the family crest he made up: a lion holding a Maltese cross.

Upstairs, in the narrow study with a view of the back garden, is the tired, leather-topped desk at which Dickens wrote Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. A large bookcase contains pages of the Oliver Twist manuscript: the ink has gone brown, and blurry in parts.

Dickens only wrote in the morning. He spent afternoons at his club, on charitable work, and on long strolls that fuelled his imagination. In just 2½ years on Doughty Street, he produced two novels, a couple of plays, and one opera libretto as well as editing a literary magazine and the memoirs of the clown Grimaldi.

On the floor above are glimpses of Dickens the family man: the small bedroom shared with Catherine, a newspaper editor's daughter, and containing one of his armoires. The letters and texts on display all relate to his subsequent separation, and reveal Dickens's hatred of his wife's "wicked mother". (The author secretly took up with an actress late in life; she was 18 when they met.)

At the very top are mementoes of Dickens's impoverished childhood, including a grille from the prison where his debtor father was locked up, forcing his 12-year-old son to get a job in a squalid shoe-polish factory.


Lai See is on holiday