11 Dec 2011

Charles Dickens’ London: a tale two cities

A new exhibition commemorating the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth suggests comparisons between poverty in mid-19th century London and modern-day divisions between rich and poor.

Uriah Heep, Quilp, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pecksniff and even Chevy Slyme – the names of Charles Dickens’ characters leap off the pages of his novels. London was his muse, and his depictions of the city’s extremes have become iconic.

Dickens’ own childhood poverty spurred one of the best-selling authors of all time to write with lasting insight and empathy. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Museum of London is holding a Dickens exhibition.

London’s imaginative landscape

Channel 4 News presenter Matt Frei spoke to Alex Werner, who curated the exhibition, about what he thought Dickens would have made of London today.

“The exhibition attempts to place Dickens in relation to the city that was his inspiration,” he explains. “He used to pace its streets at night, absorbing their character, and he used to build the plots of his novels at the same time.”

The exhibition aims to evoke the imaginative landscape of the capital city as it was during Dickens’ time. Among the exhibits are the doors from Newgate prison – particularly associated with the Gordon riots and thus linked to Dickens’ description in Barnaby Rudge of how the mob breaks into the prison.

One of the most important items on display is the original manuscript of Bleak House, whose opening sentences – describing how the fog envelops London – are among the most evocative and best known in all Dickens’ writing.

Going to the heart of society

But Dickens was also a social commentator. “A book like A Christmas Carol goes to the heart of society – a lot of very, very wealthy people, a lot of poor people,” says Alex Werner.

“In that book Dickens is talking about how it is possible to transform your life and change your attitude, and think a bit more about those less well off than yourself.

Dickens said: ‘You’ve got to look on your doorstep. There is incredible poverty in the city. What are you doing about it? Alex Werner

“His message was very clear: there were real problems in society at that period. For instance the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, a moment of national celebration. Dickens didn’t like the Great Exhibition, and his response to that was Bleak House.

“He said: ‘You’ve got to look on your doorstep. There is incredible poverty in the city. What are you doing about it? It’s a real indictment of government and society.”

And Alex Werner believes the great writer would have been concerned by conditions in present-day London. “I think he would have been really concerned about the divisions between wealth and poverty.

“He invented the term ‘red tape’. He was really worried about government inefficiency, bureaucracy, corruption, financial irregularity, poverty.”

Dickens and London, at the Museum of London, runs until 10 June 2012