The Charles Dickens Museum
Pass out of the gates and cross over Theobald’s Road. Go left into John Street, and ahead into Doughty Street where a little way along on the right is :-
The Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens moved here in March 1837, just as he was starting to find success as an author. Whilst living here, he finished Pickwick Papers, wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and began work on Barnaby Rudge. By the time he moved out, in December 1839, he was famous throughout the world. His daughters Mary and Kate were born here and it was whilst living here that he cemented his life long friendship with John Forster. It was the largest house he had lived in so far, and his domestic situation was, for a time, idyllic.
On 7th May, 1837 the idyll was shattered in a way that would affect him personally and professionally for the rest of his days. His sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth collapsed in the early hours of the morning – doctors later diagnosed heart failure – and died that afternoon in Dickens’s arms. He took a ring from her finger and wore it for the rest of his life. In his extreme grief, it never seemed to occur to him that others might have felt her loss as keenly. Not her parents at losing a daughter. Not even his wife at the loss of a sister. ‘Thank God she died in my arms,’ he said shortly after her death, ‘and the very last words she whispered were of me.’
Professionally, the immediate effect of her death on him was that he was unable to write the next instalments of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Instead Dickens and Catherine went to the wilder reaches of Hampstead to recover (See pages 57–8). But, in the years ahead, Mary Hogarth would be reincarnated time and again in his novels, becoming the all too perfect heroines such as Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son, Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities and, most famously Little Nell the unbelievably saccharine heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. As an article in The Dickensian Magazine put it in 1937, on the centenary of her death, ‘[Mary Hogarth] is part of the world’s literature’. Personally, her death may even have stunted his emotional growth leaving him with an idealized image of womanhood, which must have affected his relationship with Catherine. As time and years of child bearing took their toll on Catherine Dickens, she was more and more unable to live up to his ideal. For the rest of his life, Dickens would search for a new Mary Hogarth, and it could be said that the seeds of the later collapse of his marriage were sown in the room in Doughty Street where she died.
In 1922, The Dickens Fellowship rescued the house from demolition and, a few years later, opened it to the public. It is now a treasure trove of relics and articles that depict his life and times and is the perfect end to any tour of Dickensian London.
Exit the Dickens House Museum. Backtrack left along Guilford Street, turn right onto Grenville Street, and left along Bernard Street where a little way along is Russell Square Underground Station where this tour ends.