Wednesday, 19 December 2012

As I never did get round to tackling the complete works of Mr Dickens, or even Barnaby Rudge which I've never read before - and I don't suppose I'm going to manage it now by 31st December - nevertheless, I thought it would be nice to round off Dickens's year with a visit to his newly-restored house on Doughty Street.
There had been a whisper some months back that this had not been done with a sympathetic hand.
But I wasn't expecting this ...

Despite an uncanny resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, this is supposed to be the shadow of Mr Dickens directing you up the stairs.

Yes, here we are at his only surviving London residence, so let's turn it into the Charles Dickens Visitor Experience, why not?

(One of the museum staff said that 90% of visitors love it.)

Okay, no permanent damage done and one day a tin of Farrow & Ball will obliterate Messrs Dickens-Holmes (I think there were three of them).

But the shoddiness of the curatorship irritated me ...

Look at these rather splendid plates in the dining room, each plate bearing the face of one of Dickens's literary friends. There's no label telling you anything about them but 90% of visitors might well assume that these were plates that convivial Mr Dickens had dined from.
Or commemorative plates presented by his grateful fans?
Of course, there's always the awkward few ... no, it wasn't just me ... who peer and mutter and think, well, I'm no expert on plates but they don't look quite right.  (And one forthright chap even picked one up and turned it over but then his wife stopped him.)
But the guide in the room assured us that these were indeed the genuine article and 'probably' a gift to Mr Dickens who received lots of presents.
Now she was a nice young girl and, to be fair, I noticed as I was leaving that she was checking it with  her boss. In fact, Mr Dickens never set eyes on these splendid Victorian plates which were decorated - when? maybe all of six months ago? but anyway, made-to-order for the museum.
So why isn't it labelled? And why is there absolutely no information - not one single word - about the restoration and how it was carried out? Of course, the wallpapers and carpets are brand, spanking new. (Not sure what 90% of visitors believe!) But how did they decide on this decor? Is it generic early-Victorian Bloomsbury? Did Dickens ever describe a lairy blue dining room like this in any of his letters?
When I asked, I was told it's all on the website.
Well, it isn't.
It's a museum, for heaven's sake. I want to know what's real - and what's guesswork - and what's Dickens - and what's Dickensian-style.

But if you try very, very hard, can you step out of the Dickens Experience and get a feeling of the man himself? This is where he lived from 1837-39, at the start of his career; where he wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist; when he was newly-married to poor Catherine who gave birth to two of their children here and suffered a miscarriage after the death of her 17-year-old sister Mary who lived with them. Or was her miscarriage caused by her husband's melodramatic grief after Mary died in his arms?
I found that I was thinking more of the women than of Dickens himself. How little privacy there must have been in that house, the two bedrooms so close together, every twang of the bedsprings so audible. Is this what fostered Dickens's intense attachment to Mary? and hence the grief that fed so many death-scenes in his novels? It must have seemed as if he were married to both of them, two 'angels in the home' under one roof, one in his bed, one so near that he'd maybe hear her turning in the night.
Or am I reading too much into it? Living with an unmarried sister-in-law wouldn't have been anything like as unusual then as it would be today.

What touched me most today was seeing Catherine's little turquoise engagement ring, so like Dora's little blue ring in David Copperfield.
And the serpent ring, a gift from Catherine to her treacherous sister Georgina after Dickens's death.
Two tiny objects in old-fashioned museum cases. And the genuine article.

I realise now how lucky I was to visit Gad's Hill this summer, when there were letters and objects on loan from the museum while the restoration was going on ... but where the heritage industry hasn't been unleashed to destroy the atmosphere.


GSGreatEscaper said...

I am so sorry to hear that this is not done well, there is no excuse for it especially since we know so much about the period. Oh well DD is on her way for 6 mo in the UK and at least I will know to advise her that this isn't really worth the effort.

mary said...

Hello, Greatescaper. Don't let me out you off completely, because it's still DIckens' house - and they haven't done too much damage to his study, so you can't help but be moved seeing his desk. I think you need to close your eyes, if you can, to the tacky innovations and concentrate on what's real.
Your daughter might like Denis Severs' house in Spitalfields - completely fake but brilliantly done and with oodles of atmosphere.