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Book review: Dickensland: The curious history of Dickens’s London by Lee Jackson

by
24 November 2023

Dickens loved London, and London loves him, William Whyte declares

LONDON was hugely important to Dickens. It was the scene of some of his greatest triumphs and also his deepest tragedies. It was, in many respects, his inspiration. “I thought I knew something of the town,” a friend of the then teenage solicitor’s clerk observed, “but after a little talk with Dickens I found I knew nothing. He knew it all from Bow to Brentford.” Decades later, the successful writer was no less engaged with the city, observing that “A day in London sets me up and starts me.” For Dickens, London was little less than a “magic lantern”.

Dickens is also, still, hugely important to London. Although the city that he described in his books was already shifting and changing even as he wrote, Dickens presented such a compelling picture that it has proved impossible to escape. Those narrow lanes and ancient houses that have survived irresistibly call up the adjective “Dickensian”. It takes only a very little fog to evoke the streetscapes of Little Dorrit or Great Expectations. Wandering around London, aficionados are instantly carried back to Dickens’s novels, although, now, little bears much resemblance to any of the scenes that he described.

In Dickensland, Lee Jackson explores the great author’s entanglement with London. But this is not just an account of the places that shaped and were shaped by Dickens. Much more interestingly, Jackson explores how people’s search for Dickens in the city generated new fictions.

From Southwark’s George Inn, which spuriously claimed a connection with The Pickwick Papers, to the blue plaque on the north side of London Bridge, which erroneously asserts that it marks the place where Nancy was murdered in Oliver Twist, London turns out to be full of dubious Dickensiana. The bogus Old Curiosity Shop in Portsmouth Street was even recreated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Packed with insight and full of fun, Dickensland tells readers much about London, about Dickens, and about our desire to connect the two. Above all, it will encourage them to engage with Dickens’s work again. I am starting with Bleak House and its single-word opening sentence: “London.”


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

 

Dickensland: The curious history of Dickens’s London
Lee Jackson
Yale £20
(978-0-300-26620-7)
Church House Bookshop £18

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