1In April 1868 Dickens received a letter from a certain Miss Palfry. She wanted to know what graveyard Dickens had in mind when burying Hawdon in Bleak House. Dickens replied as follows:
Convey yourself back to London by the agency of that powerful locomotive, your imagination, and walk through the centre avenue of Covent Garden Market from West to East:—that is to say, with your back towards the church, and your face towards Drury Lane Theatre. Keep straight on along the side of the Theatre, and about halfway down, on the left side of the way, behind the houses, is a closely hemmed-in grave yard—happily long disused and closed by the Law. I do not remember that the grave-yard is accessible from the street now, but when I was a boy it was to be got at by a low covered passage under a house, and was guarded by a rusty iron gate. In that churchyard I long afterwards buried the “Nemo” of Bleak House. (4 April 1868, Letters 12: 91)
2From early on in his writing career, Dickens’s readers have wanted to know where exactly in the real world he had located certain scenes and characters, notwithstanding the fact that they had all been fictional products of that awesomely “powerful locomotive,” his imagination. Dickens himself had to respond to many such enquiries. In the last summer of his life he took a small party of friends from Gad’s Hill down to Canterbury for a visit. As they walked around the city streets they recalled David Copperfield and one of the company asked Dickens which particular house he had had in mind for Dr Strong’s. To which he replied, laughingly, that “There were several that would do” (Dolby 427).
3Just over 30 years after Dickens’s death, the Dickens Fellowship was formed. Its aims as stated in its constitution included the pledges “to knit together in a common bond of friendship lovers of the great master of humour and pathos, Charles Dickens” and “to assist in the preservation and purchase of buildings and objects associated with his name or mentioned in his works.” From the start, Dickensian place and fellowship community were associated in a sentimental bonding. Dickens lovers—Charles Dickens—Dickensian places. The Fellowship’s headquarters moved several times in those early years, but in 1917 found premises at Clifford’s Inn. It announced with delight that it was now settled “in the very heart of the real Dickensland” (Dickensian 19: 183). “The Real Dickensland.” What are we to make of this paradox?
4In those early years the Fellowship’s journal The Dickensian followed up that mission statement about the preservation of places associated with Dickens. Its pages were full of notes and articles tracing the sites important in Dickens’s life or prominent in his novels. For example, in the journal’s Index entry for Pickwick Papers (a great favourite of early Dickensians) there are many subject sub-headings, but the fullest of all in terms of number of references indicated is “topography.” The same interest was awarded to David Copperfield. For example in Volume 2 (1906) there is a short piece entitled “Mrs. Crupp’s House,” recording the planned demolition of a house at the bottom east side of London’s Buckingham Street, where the 22-year-old Dickens lodged in 1834, and where he lodged young David Copperfield under Mrs. Crupp’s beady eye, and where David had his first drunken dissipation with Steerforth and friends—a fusion of precious fictional and biographical significances for the property.
5One important function of such articles and their accompanying photos was to record buildings associated with Dickens’s life and works before they disappeared from the landscape in course of development (as happened to Nemo’s graveyard in Dickens’s own lifetime). Their disappearance threatened mysteriously to erode Dickens’s presence in the national life. According to Charles Kent, a friend of Dickens, “So emphatically had Dickens made London his own that countless parts of it had come to be known generically as ‘Dickens’s London.’” Kent was lunching one day with Matthew Arnold, and during their conversation expressed his “anguish at the rapid disappearance of these historical spots,” to which Arnold replied, “I so perfectly agree with you that I should like to see them all placed carefully under glass” (qtd in Collins 2: 242). At least their photographed images could be placed behind glass and preserved in some way long after their demolition—a partial way of fulfilling the Fellowship pledge to preserve such sites.
6But Dickensian topography has a more enigmatic significance for his readers. Heritage industry and literary tourism suggest that there is a kind of synergy between the experience of his novels and confrontation with surviving sites connected with their actions and characters. The intensity of this relationship seems to distinguish Dickens’s readership more than that of any other English novelist. Why?
7Place mattered acutely to Dickens the writer. What Henry James called “solidity of specification” (173) meant for Dickens an object or event or a setting in fiction that could be strongly visualised. As he advised one would-be contributor to Household Words, the dramatic material must be presented “as a thing seen by the writer, or going on before the reader […] as a play might show it” (Letters 7: 277–78). This was the principle in his own practice in establishing settings—to make place palpable to the senses, even if he then goes on to dissolve that solidity and blur those contours in conjuring symbolic suggestiveness (as with the fog and Lincoln’s Inn in Bleak House’s opening scenes).
8He took trouble to give concrete identity to his settings, especially in London, which was “his chief studio” (Collins 2: 42), as his friend Charles Kent put it. Like a film director Dickens would often go location-hunting for his characters’ habitats. While writing The Old Curiosity Shop he posted a note to Forster: “I intended calling on you this morning on my way back from Bevis-Marks, whither I went to look at a house for Sampson Brass” (Letters 2: 118). He thus made place—concretised and substantiated local settings—important for the reader. When asked once if his London locations were furnished from personal observation, he replied “yes, my pictures were all drawn from personal inspection” (Collins 2: 326). Why was this so important to him?
9This imaginative set-building using real places was fundamental to Dickens as a reader from his earliest years. The passages early in David Copperfield in which David describes his reading “as if for life,” are true to child Dickens’s own experience, as he assured Forster. Fictional characters became the child Dickens’s companions: conversely, the real world and its inhabitants could slip into an indistinguishable blend of the real and imaginary. In mundane Rochester High Street the Corn Exchange became for the book-besotted child the model for Aladdin’s palace. So fluid was the exchange that, just as imaginary characters became real, the child Dickens could temporarily become an imaginary person. David/Dickens remembers that he consoled himself “by impersonating my favorite characters […]. I have been Tom Jones […] for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch […]” (Forster 5). He was not just reading about them or impersonating them; he was also watching them as they absconded from the confines of their book and turned up living in Chatham as his contemporaries. “I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlor of our little village alehouse” (Forster 5). These characters, Dickens told Forster, were “a host of friends when he had no single friend” (Forster 5). He came away from Chatham around the age of 10. Those books went with the Dickens family up to London, but he felt those characters were left behind, in Chatham, passing their lives back there in the town and countryside of his childhood.
10Dickens came away from the Medway towns for the very last time on 14 June 1870, in his coffin on the train to London and Westminster Abbey. He left behind a host of fictional friends. But these were ones that had sprung from his imagination over the 48 years since that first leave-taking. They too broke free from their books. Dickens used to say that his characters assumed a life of their own once he had created them. His friend James Fields reported him saying that “when the children of his brain had once been launched, free and clear of him, into the world, they would sometime turn up in the most unexpected manner to look their father in the face” (qtd. in Collins 2: 311). He would tell his illustrator Marcus Stone much more about his characters than ever appeared in the book—“as if they were living people”, recalled Stone (qtd. in Collins 2: 188). Another witness described how, as she and Dickens discussed some of his characters “he spoke as if they were living beings, the friends and companions of his everyday life” (qtd. in Collins 2: 46). These fugitives had been rapidly colonising not just the Medway area but the whole country. In the public imagination they too had escaped from their matrix novels and were fastening themselves to real places up and down England, ready for the Dickens Fellowship to track them down.
Dickens and his Characters
J. R. Brown, “Dickens and his Characters.” Charles Dickens by Pen and Pencil, by F. G. Kitton (1890)
11No other writer’s legacy has been so often represented as in portraits like these, of Dickens witnessing his characters swarming around him and sprawling across the English landscape. Thus Dickensland came into being.
12What is the relationship between Dickens, Dickensian places and our reading experience? The novelist Elizabeth Bowen has written most eloquently of what she called “the overlapping and haunting of life by fiction”. In her 1946 essay “Out of a Book,” she writes: “I have in my make-up layers of synthetic experience […] layers of fictitious memory,” from the reading of books or hearing of stories in childhood. What was absorbed from books “remains indistinguishable from the life of those years because it was the life of those years”: “one stripped bare the books of one’s childhood to make oneself.” The adult imagination is thus “rooted in a compost of forgotten books.” This inevitably touches our sense of the identity of place:
For the child, any real-life scene that has once been sucked into the ambiance of the story is affected, or infected forever. The road, cross-roads, corner of a wood, cliff, flight of steps, town square, quayside or door in a wall keeps a transmuted existence: it has not only given body to fiction, it has partaken of fiction’s body. Such a thing, place or scene cannot again be walked past indifferently; it exerts a pull and sets up a tremor; and it is to indent the memory for life. (48–53)
13Dickensians would be familiar with this tug, this tremor, this indentation of the memory. “Dickens’s London” (as Charles Kent called it), or “the real Dickensland” (as the Fellowship called it) is a region permeated with sites of fictional or biographical Dickens connections. But as it is for us, so it was for Dickens with a different frame of reference. London for him was a vivid literary reality before he ever came to know it first-hand. It was a mosaic of pungent romantic sites remembered from books, and affecting or infecting the actual configuration of the city. The city was a topographical palimpsest. Covent Garden, for instance. Soon after he had arrived in London from Chatham at the age of 10 he came to know and love a poem in George Coleman’s book Broad Grins, which features Covent Garden:
Centrick, in London noise, and London follies,
Proud Covent Garden blooms, in smoky glory;
For chairman, coffee-rooms, piazzas, dollies,
Cabbages, and comedians, fame’d in story!
14The boy was so impressed by this description, says Forster, reporting Dickens’s own story, that he stole down to the market by himself to compare it with the book. He remembered, as he said, “snuffing up the flavor of the faded cabbage leaves as if it were the very breath of comic fiction” (Forster op.cit. 12). “Fame’d in story”: that was London topography for young Dickens.
15Those cabbage-leaves, once inhaled by the imagination, hover somewhere between a literary confection and a pungent piece of market debris. So it is with the experience of “Dickens’s London,” that hybridised topography, through which modern Dickensians map their way. They are following the tracks of song-lines, ley-lines. They orientate their quest through what Iain Sinclair has called “an alternative cartography” (142), and one can see lines of connection between this and some of the practices of psychogeography with which Sinclair is associated. There are connections too with the flâneur’s “habit of anachrony” as Kirsten Seale calls it. Walter Benjamin observed, “We know that, in the course of flânerie, far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the present moment” (419). Primed to suspend disbelief on arrival at any Dickens-related site—a street corner or huddled old building—Dickensians slip into a virtual world where, behind the veil of mundane modern London, Nemo is still being buried and David is still reeling his way through his first dissipation, high up in his Buckingham Street lodgings—the same lodgings in which Dickens himself lived.
16Commemorative plaques punctuate these song-line journeys, landmarking the fictional and the biographical alike. One blends with the other in Dickensland. The fictional acquires historical authenticity, and the biographical a mythical resonance.
17How do we figure this reorienting relationship? Perhaps it is a form of triangulation practiced by the touring Dickensian enthusiast: Dickens—Dickensian Location—Dickensian Reader-with-Text. Triangulation involves determining the location and coordinates of a remote object (from “far-off times and places”) by taking bearings from two fixed points a known distance apart. In our application, the known fixed points might be seen as the modern Dickensian confronting the modern Dickens location—let us say that Buckingham Street site. This relationship is then used to get one’s bearings on that third point, the tantalizingly absent, the beloved Charles Dickens who shared these premises with David Copperfield.
18Why “beloved”? The Fellowship, as mentioned earlier, was formed “to knit together in a common bond of friendship lovers of the great master of humour and pathos, Charles Dickens.” The pledge implicitly responds to what Dickens once called “that peculiar relation (personally affectionate, and like no other man’s) which subsists between me and the public?” (Letters 8: 539). Fellowship so constituted gathers a group of otherwise disparate people (“the public”) and intensifies the Dickens community at these triangulation points, when everyone is responding to a focal point in Dickens’s creation of an intensively imagined act in a real location. This communitarian experience seems to me to be different in some key respects from that of the flâneur or the perambulating psychogeographer. Both of these are essentially solitaries. Both also have more of a political agenda in organising their sauntering observational practices as forms of resistance to the rhetoric of modernist urbanism, to purposeful business-oriented walking, to dirigiste architectural and town-planning imperatives.
19Dickens has colonised certain real locations through acts of the imagination. He has also colonised our imaginations. Indeed, Dickensian fellowship is a population of such colonists occupying a territory called Dickensland. Dickensian topography becomes not just a matter of passive spectatorship. As in our reading Dickens, so in our Dickens topography we become active collaborators in bringing fictions to life. We are actively implicated in that reiterated act of creative imagination by working on the same material forms in order to bring back to life the fictional moment, the Dickensian presence, in a modern London side street.