Through England with Dickens
It is a singular anomaly, but nevertheless true, that places associated with famous characters in fiction more often than not possess a far greater interest than those connected with actual persons. The houses in which famous people were born, or where they lived, have naturally a certain amount of sentimental interest; but the birthplace of a celebrated character in fiction, or the house or place forming the setting for a famous scene in a story, will in the majority of cases evoke a considerably greater amount of enthusiasm.
The topography of the novels of Dickens has a wider appeal than probably any other author. Dickens's characters are so true to type - witness Bumble, Mrs. Gamp, Pecksniff, Vincent Crummies, Micawber, Mrs. Jarley, Oliver Twist, Dodson and Fogg, Mrs. Jellyby - and so endeared to our memory. They possess, too, the advantage that readers generally have a far better perception of what they stand for than they have of a similar number of actual people.
It is not the Dickens enthusiast alone who is responsible for the great interest taken in the various spots made famous in the novels. Soberly written guide books treat the Dickens characters as actual personalities, and record their associations with these towns. Little wonder, therefore, that visitors to London ask to be shown the Old Curiosity Shop, in order to renew their recollections of Little Nell; obliging cicerones conduct them to Portsmouth Street, and the visitor often departs perfectly satisfied, although the quaint little shop there has no right to the claim it advances, and no associations either with Dickens or with Nelly Trent!
Similarly, at Portsmouth, Dickens's birthplace naturally attracts thousands of pilgrims annually; but the house sheltered the baby Dickens a few weeks only, and more interest is shown in the shop on the Hard above which Nicholas Nickleby lodged, and in locating the spot on which formerly stood the theatre tenanted for a season by the immortal Vincent Crummies and his company.
At Rochester, too, the Mecca of Dickensians, interest in the glorious cathedral is second to its associations with John Jasper and the unsolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of Edwin Drood; and the ancient Norman castle is best remembered by the staccato remarks of Mr. Jingle when he first saw it as the coach with the Pickwickians crossed the bridge.
The novels of Dickens add to the interest of many towns and villages, and rank as literary guides to the beauties of the length and breadth of the land. In "The Pickwick Papers" - the preeminent novel of travel in the English language - we find the incidents in the story rapidly changing from London to Rochester, then to Sudbury, Suffolk, to Bury St. Edmunds, Ipswich, and back into Kent again, to Dingley Dell. Then comes the journey to Bath, followed by that to Bristol, Tewkesbury and Birmingham.
In "Oliver Twist," although the scene is laid principally in London, there is the description of the eighty miles walk-taken by young Oliver from the workhouse in the town which was the original seat of Bumbledom - probably Grantham or Peterborough - and his entry into London via "the little town of Bar-net," where he met the illustrious Artful Dodger. Later came the more detailed and adventurous "expedition" through the Thames-side towns with Bill Sikes for the burglary at the Maylie's house at Chertsey - the actual house still existing in Pyrcroft House.
"Nicholas Nickieby" took Dickens into Yorkshire to find a school for Squeers, and his journey in the snow is faithfully described in the book: and from Yorkshire, Nicholas and Smike tramped to the novelist's birthplace, to fall in with Vincent Crummies.
In "The Old Curiosity Shop" a much wider field of English scenery was drawn upon for the long pilgrimage of Little Nell and her grandfather. "Martin Chuzzlewit," before the scene shifted to America, introduced us to Wiltshire - Salisbury particularly. In "Dombey and Son" we find ourselves at Brighton, watching the ceaseless waves with little Paul. David Copper-field was born in Suffolk, where many of his early adventures were met with, and to compensate for Nicholas's walk to Portsmouth we have little David's tramp through Kent to Dover. "Bleak House" has its provincial setting in Lincolnshire. "Little Dorrit," when not in London, moves only on the Continent. "Our Mutual Friend" has charming and dramatic scenes upon the banks of the Thames, whilst "Great Expectations" and "Edwin Drood" help Dickens to finish, where he began, in Rochester and the surrounding neighbourhood.
Although Dickens's actual birthplace was in Portsmouth, the claim to be the birthplace of his fancy justly rests with Rochester. To the adjacent town of Chatham - "if anybody knows to a nicety where Rochester ends and Chatham begins; it is more than I do" - the Dickens family went to live when Charles was four, and here they remained for about seven years. Their residences in Ordnance Terrace and St. Mary's Place are marked by tablets.
Rochester figures largely in "The Pickwick Papers"; under the sundry guises of Dull-borough Town, Mudfog and Great Winglebury it had already appeared in "Sketches by Boz." In "Great Expectations" it is variously referred to as the Market Town, Up Town and Our Town; and we know it to be Rochester from its proximity to the marshes, where Cooling and Higham stood for the composite picture of the village and churchyard where Pip met the convict, and so led the way for the expectations. In the last story Dickens wrote the city is called Cloister-ham; but although in this case he called Rochester by a fictitious name, he made no concealment otherwise that he was referring to the city of his fancy and his dreams.
The bridge across the Medway connecting Rochester with Strood is a new (and ugly) affair since both David Copperfield and Richard Doubledick limped, footsore, over it, and Mr. Pickwick, leaning over the parapet, contemplated Nature and waited for breakfast. The view approaching the city is certainly one to provoke enthusiasm, as it did with the Pickwickians one hundred years ago.
The bridge gives directly on to the "long straggling High Street," which Dickens, as a boy, used to consider "was at least as wide as Regent Street, London," but which, on revisiting in manhood, he found to be "little better than a lane."
The Bull Hotel is one of the lions of Rochester. "Good house; nice beds" was the recommendation of Jingle, who warned the Pickwickians not to go to "Wrights' - next house; dear, very dear - half a crown in the bill if you look at the waiter - charge you more if you dine at a friend's than they would if you dined in the coffee-room - rum fellows - very."
The coffee-room (now the lounge), the staircase just as it was - "three stairs and a landing - four stairs and another landing - -one step and another landing - half a dozen stairs and another landing, and so on ": the ballroom (now the coffee-room) with its "elevated den" or musicians' gallery, are all just as they were in Mr. Pickwick's days, as also are the communicating bedrooms Nos. 13 and 19, occupied by Tupman and Winkle, which facilitated the abstraction by Jingle of Winkle's dress clothes, with such a disastrous result for poor Winkle.
As the Blue Boar, the Bull figures in "Great Expectations." Opposite the Bull is the Town Hall, where Pip was bound 'prentice to his brother-in-law. In another book Dickens said it had appeared to him in boyhood days so glorious a structure that he had set it up in his mind "as the model on which the Genie of the Lamp built the Palace for Aladdin." A little farther on we find the Corn Exchange, with its "moon-faced clock," and almost opposite is "an old stone gatehouse crossing the close with an arched thoroughfare passing beneath it." This is the Gate House where John Jasper lived in Dickens's last story, "Edwin Drood." Passing through it, we find on the left the house of Tope the Verger, where the mysterious Dick Datchery lodged and marked his score upon the cupboard door: the last lines penned by Dickens. Mr. Sapsea the auctioneer lived in one of the quaint gabled houses farther along High Street, where also Mr. Pumblechook had his seed business.
The cathedral, of course, is indelibly associated with John Jasper, who was lay precentor there; the mystery attaching to the disappearance of Edwin Drood will probably never be cleared up, in spite of the best brains in the land having endeavoured to find a solution. The cathedral contains a brass tablet to the memory of Dickens and "the scenes in which his earliest and his latest years were passed, and with the associations of Rochester Cathedral and its neighbourhood, which extended over all his life."
Canterbury is intimately associated with David Copperfield and Agnes Wickfield - whose "very old house bulging out over the road, with long low lattice windows bulging out still further," is pointed out as at No. 71 St. Dunstan's Street. Dr. Strong's school, "a grave building in a courtyard with a learned air about it," had its prototype in the King's School Uriah Heep's "'umble dwelling" used to exist in North Lane, but since that has been demolished, we hear a new abode has been found for the apostle of humility
At Paddock Wood station Dickens laid the scene of the death of Carker on the railway line, and at Staplehurst Dickens was a victim of the serious railway accident of 1865, when ten people were killed and many injured. Dickens worked heroically among the sufferers, and the shock had a lasting effect; five years later to the very day he himself passed away.
The Kentish coast doubtless received some impetus as a holiday resort from Dickens's steady allegiance to Broadstairs over a period of fourteen years. His last residence there was Fort House, on the cliff overlooking the tiny harbour: it was later named "Bleak House," by which name it is now known, but it has no association with the novel of that name. Folkestone and Dover were other favourite Kentish resorts of the novelist, and "Doctor" Brighton welcomed him on many occasions.
The journalistic days of Dickens (he was a reporter on the "Morning Chronicle" in 1834-5) are responsible for the descriptions of Bath which he gave us in ''The Pickwick Papers" The General Election of 1835 took him to Exeter, Bath and Bristol, and although he gave no account of the former city in any of his novels, Exeter has claims to Dickensian interest, as at Alphington - at that time a village adjacent, and now a part of the city - he rented Mile End Cottage for his parents on their retirement in 1839.
To Bath the Pickwickians made their famous pilgrimage after the memorable Bardell v. Pickwick Breach of Promise trial. Indeed, we are probably more indebted to Bath than we generally imagine, for the very name of Pickwick was taken from Moses Pickwick, who owned the service of coaches plying between London and Bath, and had his name, "the magic name of Pickwick," painted "in letters of a goodly size" on the door of the coach which conveyed Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller from the White Horse Cellar in Piccadilly to the White Hart in Bath. This latter hostelry stood where the Pump Room Hotel now stands, but the effigy of the White Plart may be seen adorning the doorway of a small public house at Widcombe, a suburb of Bath.
But if the White Hart inn, kept by the above-named Mr. Moses Pickwick, is no more, the great Pump Room itself still remains, and here the drinkers still swallow the contents of the "yellow looking tumblers" with "perseverance and gravity," as they did when Mr. Pickwick "began to drink the waters with the utmost assiduity," taking "a quarter of a pint before breakfast and then walking up a hill, and a quarter of a pint after breakfast and then walking down a hill."
Of all the Dickensian sights of Bath, perhaps the most prominent and best remembered is the Crescent, in which Mr. Pickwick lodged, and where occurred the ever-mirth-provoking adventure of Mr. Winkle and the ladies in the sedan chair, when the former, in scanty night attire, " took to his heels and tore round and round the Crescent hotly pursued by Dowler and the watchman."
Before leaving Bath a visit should be paid to the house at No. 35 St. James's Square, where Dickens visited his old friend Walter Savage Landor, and where the fancy that shortly afterwards took the form of Little Nell was first conceived by him.
From Bath the Pickwick story takes us to Bristol, where little of Dickens interest now remains, and then to Birmingham by way of Berkeley Heath (the Bell inn there, at which the party stopped for lunch, is now a private house) and Tewkesbury, where, at the Hop Pole, they dined, and had more bottled ale, Madeira and port. Mr. Pickwick and Bob Allen then fell asleep for thirty miles, while Bob Sawyer and Sam Weller "sang duets in the dickey."
In East Anglia we come in very close contact with the best-known characters of the two most popular of Dickens's stories. Mr. Pickwick and his friends visited it to see the corrupt election at Eatanswill, and became acquainted with the mayoral dignity of Mr. Nup-kins; and David Copperfield came out of it via the inn at Yarmouth, where the friendly waiter ate the dinner provided for him, to Mr. Creakle's school and the drudgery of the bottle warehouse of Murdstone & Grinby.
There are only two fictitiously-named towns in "The Pickwick Papers," and Eatanswill is one of them. Sudbury, in Suffolk, is said to be the original, although it must be confessed there is little Dickensian charm about the town to-day. But typical of England - and of Dickens - is the "handsome little town of thriving and cleanly appearance," Bury St. Edmunds, a few miles off. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller hastened thence on the outside of a stage coach from Mrs. Leo Hunter's fete champetre, to track down Jingle and Job Trotter, it will be remembered.
The Angel Hotel, opposite the abbey gateway, was where Mr. Pickwick put up, and here he received the letter from Dodson & Fogg intimating the action for breach of promise. In the yard is an old pump - possibly the very one Sam Weller resorted to for his "halfpenny shower-bath."
In Southgate Street is the "large old red-brick house" said to be the original of Westgate House, the young ladies' school to which Mr. Pickwick was inveigled by the crafty Job Trotter and his story that his master, Alfred Jingle, contemplated eloping with one of the schoolgirls.
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