A.N. Wilson

Dickens’s London is more elusive than the artful dodger himself

Admirers of the novels have always enjoyed identifying their settings where possible, but Dickens’s old haunts are now mainly glimpsed in street names or blue plaques

Field Lane, off Saffron Hill, Fagin’s lair in Oliver Twist. Illustration from Old and New London, with numerous engravings from the most authentic sources, by Walter Thornbury. [Alamy]

Is Dickens’s London a place, or a state of mind, or a bit of both? I used to ask myself the question all the time when I was literary editor of this periodical and our office in Doughty Street was a few doors down from the Dickens Museum, at no. 48, the house where he lived in the early days of his fame and where his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died. The deputy lit ed, Clare Asquith, and I used to walk in those days before computers to the press, which was in Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, the scene of Fagin’s lair. We’d pass Bleeding Heart Yard, where so much of Little Dorrit takes place. Many of the streets near our office – Brownlow Street, for example – took their names from characters in Dickens’s novels. But which came first: Dickens or the place names? Was Bleeding Heart Yard so named because of the novel, or did he use this highly evocative place name because it was already there?

Dickens would sit on Old London Bridge waiting for the Marshalsea to open so that he could visit his parents

I did not find as many answers as I’d hoped from reading Lee Jackson’s book on Dickensian London. The city changes, of course, at a prodigious rate. The Victorians destroyed more Wren churches than did the Luftwaffe, and Dickens’s life (1812-70) saw the destruction of many of his haunts. We remember the opening passage of Dombey and Son, with its evocations of the gouging out of Camden Town to make room for the railways.

The White Hart Inn in the Borough, so vividly described in The Pickwick Papers, was demolished in 1889. There’s a haunting photograph of it in the book. The galleries where Mr Jingle and Miss Wardle dodged the pursuit of the Pickwick Club had by then been turned into cheap slum apartments.

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