I have a confession. I normally always refer to Charles Dickens as “Dahl’s Chickens.” Perhaps you’ll think me terribly uncultured for admitting I far prefer The BFG to anything Dickens wrote, but at least you’ll know where I stand on ol’ Charles. I’m not questioning his influence, particularly on modern Christmas traditions, I’m just saying his novels have never really grabbed me. If anything, rather than just favouring Dahl over Dickens, I actively disliked the man after learning about how mean he was to poor, gawky Hans Christian Andersen. So, did a trip to his London home change my opinion of him? Read on to find out. (and on an unrelated note, my postcard giveaway is open until tomorrow (20 February), so there’s still time to enter!)
I certainly wasn’t won over when I was asked to part with £8 (!) for admission. London prices and all, but this was still a bit rich for my blood. At least the museum wasn’t very crowded, despite it being ideal museum weather that day (windy, cold, and rainy). I was handed a little booklet with a paragraph about each room in it, and there were a few more booklets in each room next to objects of importance, but other than that, little description of the house’s contents. I was annoyed by this right from the start, upon encountering the largest Victorian gown I’ve ever seen in one of the ground floor rooms. I mean, this thing would have been big on Queen Victoria, and I don’t mean height-wise, as the owner must have been extremely short, but pretty much as wide as she was tall; cube-like, if you will. Catherine Dickens appeared to have been quite slim, especially as a young woman, so I’m left wondering why the museum would include such a curious object with no explanation of why it was there. Then again, the rooms seemed to contain a mix of period furnishings and curiosities, so in that sense it fit right in.
The museum seemed to encourage lengthy stays, with copies of Dickens’s novels and some books that had inspired him strewn about the place, bearing “”Please read me” labels, but although I’m a fast reader who enjoys the odd bit of Smollett, I’m certainly not ambitious enough to contemplate reading Roderick Random in its entirety during a museum visit. Leaving the lavishly decorated ground floor rooms, I headed into the basement, which was exactly like the basement of every other large Victorian household ever, with a scullery and kitchen, and a list of the servants’ responsibilities. Dickens did have a nice little wine cellar though.
The house was one of those delightful terraced Georgian numbers, the sort I’ve always wanted to live in; narrow, but with more floors than I was anticipating. The upper floors were better than the lower ones, as they contained more of Dickens’s actual possessions, and some rather poignant objects that had been left by his grave, since he was obviously more beloved by the Victorians than by me. Other than the reading table he’d had specially designed, and the descriptions by Thomas Carlyle of Dickens as a sort of dandy, with his many multi-coloured waistcoats, nothing was particularly standing out to me to distinguish it from other historic homes.
I was relieved when I got up to the attic rooms, as these were more “museum-like” in content, and explained Dickens’s poverty-stricken childhood, and how it influenced his writing. If there could have been more of this throughout the museum, I think I would have enjoyed it more, or at least felt like I was getting to know more about him and his personality. I mean, anyone who is interested in the Victorians will already know tidbits about Dickens, but I didn’t get any profound sense of the man by being in his house, which makes sense, as the family only lived there for two years!
I was impressed with the layout of the house, as people were directed upstairs via the front staircase, and back down via a hidden back staircase, which at least helped avoid awkwardly waiting in the stairwell for people to come up or down. This also meant there were more rooms I wasn’t expecting on the way out, though one of them was on the filming of the new Ralph Fiennes film The Invisible Woman; having not seen it, I didn’t really get or care what they were talking about. The only mention of Hans Christan Andersen I could find was an entry on the timeline mentioning his visit, but there was nothing about how much they disliked him. I reckon Andersen gets the last laugh though, as his museum is miles better than Dickens’s.
In the end, there was nothing to particularly distinguish the Dahl’s Chickens…I mean, the Charles Dickens Museum from any other historic home. I didn’t hate it, but I left not knowing much more about Dickens than when I started, and I definitely don’t think it was worth the admission price (though if anything was going to win me over to Dickens, it would be his stylish waistcoats; I only recall seeing two of them). It was similar to Samuel Johnson’s house in the type of content, though I believe Dickens’s house may have been larger, but admission to Johnson’s house only cost half as much. I can’t help but feel that the museum is just cashing in on the house’s limited connection to a huge name by keeping the admission price so high. Like I said, it wasn’t terrible, but it was expensive for what it was, and a LOT more signage wouldn’t go amiss. I think the fact that this review isn’t terribly descriptive is indicative of how unmemorable my visit was. 3/5