48 Doughty Street: a Dickens family perspective by Mark Dickens
The elegant and distinctive Charles Dickens Museum is brim full of the most wonderful artefacts from the life and works of my great-great-grandfather – from the smallest trinket to his famous writing desk and chair and everything in between. Every one of these fabulous items weaves a special piece of magic and adds greatly to understanding the personality of the man himself and the experience of the visitor. For me, the crowning glory which brings everything together is the house itself. How fortunate we all are that, when threatened with demolition in the 1920’s, it was purchased for the nation by the Dickens Fellowship and opened to the public.
Charles Dickens by S. Laurence and 48 Doughty Street © Charles Dickens Museum
In March 1837, 48 Doughty Street was a relatively new Georgian terrace house not far from the outskirts of London when a 25 year old, rather brash and flamboyant young man teeming with energy and creativity, burst onto the literary scene. Charles Dickens’s fortunes had changed considerably over the previous years. Barely thirteen years before, his father had been confined to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison and Charles, a small weak and delicate 12 year old, was plunged into despair, taken out of school and sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory. Now, following the publication of the first 37 chapters (in thirteen monthly parts) of the universally popular The Pickwick Papers, his life was suddenly changing out of all recognition. He was rapidly becoming a national literary sensation; his finances were on the increase; he had been married for a year to his beautiful young wife and they already had a two month old son; and his 15 year old brother Fred and 17 year old sister-in-law Mary Hogarth were regular visitors, residing with the family for extended periods of time. He was supremely happy but it was definitely time to move up in the world.
Inside 48 Doughty Street © Charles Dickens Museum
Dickens was on the lookout for a larger, grander house that suited his new status. He and Catherine settled on smart and genteel 48 Doughty Street for the substantial rental price of £80 a year with a three year lease. It was definitely a place where he could hold his head up high and entertain his newly acquired, eminent literary friends. The house would have been a constant whirlwind of activity, socially and creatively, and full of fun and laughter. Although Dickens only lived at 48 Doughty Street for two and a half years, his literary output was staggering: he completed The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, wrote the whole of Nicholas Nickleby and worked on Barnaby Rudge. In addition he also wrote four plays, the productions of which he oversaw, and took over as editor of the literary magazine Bentley's Miscellany. Swept up in all this tremendous energy, Catherine would have made a busy and glamorous hostess whilst also coping with the birth of their two daughters, Mamie and Katey. However, amongst this gaiety, there was also one very dark cloud – the sudden and unexpected death of the perfect and innocent Mary Hogarth – which totally devastated Charles, affecting him and his writing for the rest of his life. What a powerful range of emotions these walls have seen.
Dining Room in 48 Doughty Street © Charles Dickens Museum
Today, following the magnificent refurbishment in 2012 for the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, which also incorporated the next door house into the Museum, 48 Doughty Street has for the first time, been restored to what it was really like when Charles Dickens lived here over 175 years ago. As you will discover when you visit, the renovation work is outstanding with enormous care taken in every detail. I have been fortunate to wander around the building entirely on my own, lingering in each room as the great man would have done. If you let your mind wander, it is easy to imagine him writing, entertaining, relaxing or sleeping – his presence in the house is palpable. What makes the experience so special is that it really doesn’t feel like a museum, it feels like a family home where a young man of 25, so full of life and promise, lived and loved. It never ceases to amaze and inspire me.
Drawing Room at Christmas in 48 Doughty Street © Charles Dickens Museum
Mark Dickens is the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, descended from Dickens’s sixth son, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens. He is the current head of the Dickens family and is a member of the Charles Dickens Museum board.
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