Charles Dickens London - Number 48 Doughty Street
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE fronts, rear elevations, stoops, and area ways of the many homes in which Mr. Dickens had his sojourn would fill any ordinary sized sketch-book, leaving no room for those that housed his characters: Portsea, where he was born; Chatham; Bayham Street; Lant Street; Furnival's Inn; Chalk; Doughty Street; Devonshire Terrace; Tavistock House; Gad's Hill where he died their names are legion, to say nothing of the various inns, and the several out-of-the-way places which at different times sheltered him and his family. But I had only room for one of these homes, and so I chose that of No. 48 Doughty Street.
There was no question about its identity. His name was prominently displayed in the middle of the second panel, plain as print, in black letters over the door, or directly on the door itself, I forget which. The brisk young maid said the lady was at home and "Would I please walk into the parlour," which I did.
And a queer old parlour it was; full of everything a queer old parlour should have a cushiony tall rocker knitted tidy haircloth sofa and plenty of photographs sort of a parlour neat as a pin and as comfortable as an old slipper. And the landlady was precisely the kind of a land-lady you would have expected to find in just such a par-lour, with a soft, comfortable, English voice, coming to me out of the half-light of the room.
My story, to which she listened patiently, was the same that I have been telling these many years, whenever forced to invade the privacy of a family homestead, beginning with the statement that "I am a painter from over the sea" (here I extend my visiting-card), that " I have made bold to call in the hope that I might be permitted to make a drawing of the home in which" (here follows the title of the chapter covering the subject-matter of the sketch) in this instance the house in which Mr. Dickens passed the first years of his married life and where, if I were not mistaken, he wrote the last chapters of "Pickwick."
"No, sir, you are quite right," she answered, "and I shall show you the very room out in the back yard where he finished the book. Oh, quite a tiny little place ! And so you're from New York?"
She had been telescoping the distance lying between her spectacles and my bit of pasteboard, as she looked at me over their rims, and apparently satisfied with my general deportment, went on in a more cheery tone :
"Why, I don't see how I could refuse. I have so many Americans. Some of them keep their rooms for weeks. There are two here now." Suddenly she grew anxious, her eyes focussing me the closer. "You won't make any dirt or noise, will you, for our dinner hour is quite early. Some of my lady boarders use this parlour for I interrupted hastily to explain that it was the outside of the house which interested me, and that as for cleanliness, I was a past master in the art ! No house cat stepped as noiselessly, no chambermaid ever used a dust-pan after my departure.
My own eyes by this time had become accustomed to the dim light of the room. A June sun was burning holes in the coal smoke outside, and the possessor of the soft English voice and gentle manner had, under the benign influence of its rays, now emerged from the gloom.
As I listened to her talk, studying her personality, I could understand how rich in literary material was the London from which Mr. Dickens drew his characters. She might have stepped out of one of his books, for she unquestionably lived in them. To describe her is impossible. A year has gone by since I saw her, and my memory has grown a little hazy quite natural in London; but the impression remains with me of a certain done-up-in-lavender sort of an old lady, as if she had lived a good many years in one room and been folded up every night and laid away in a bureau drawer.
There were ruffles, too, somewhere I think about her throat, and some kind of fluting at the end of two long white cap strings that rested on her thin shoulders; and small shrivelled hands and a quaint bend of her back as she leaned forward to hear me the better. Perhaps a woman of seventy, perhaps eighty, but very gentle and with a motherly touch about her, due, no doubt, to the care she . took of the variously stranded young men who occupied her "three pair back."
There was a sister, too, or perhaps a niece some years younger, not a great many, but some who chimed in now and then. Rather a bustling, nervous, intense little woman in a shiny black silk, whose whole purpose in life seemed to be to save her companion any undue exertion.
"There," she interrupted, "you've talked enough. No, I'll show the gentleman the knocker. You'll have to get up, sir, and come over to the other side of the room, for it's screwed fast to the wall. It used to be on the front door when Mr. Dickens lived here, and would be there now had they not tried to steal it not once, but half a dozen times so we took it off and bolted it here inside" she was caressing it now tenderly with her hand. "Just think how many times his fingers took hold of it! How often he came in late at night, forgot his key and awoke everybody in the house! until they let him in! Not much of a knocker, as you can see couldn't have cost five shillings when it was new there were a dozen, no doubt, to be found just like it up and down this street many, of them are there now. But, you see, it made a great deal of difference whose hand touched it. Try a rap of your own on it, everybody does who comes."
The touch of my loyal fingers overlaid the touch of those of the long ago, and both ladies being satisfied with my devotion, the younger of the two in her role of protector laid her own on the old lady's wrist and said rather peremptorily:
"No, I'll show the gentleman the back yard. You've walked enough today. I'll just close this blind to keep the sun out. It's coming in now, and there's your shawl and don't sit near the door where there'll be a draught. This way, sir."
I followed through the narrow, old-fashioned brownish hall covered with oilcloth, flanked with old-fashioned mahogany chairs, a jar for old-fashioned wet umbrellas in one corner and a hat-rack in the other, and passed out into a small, cramped, disheartened garden into which was thrust a begrimed, blackened, dilapidated back extension with one large end window large in contrast with the dimensions of the wall in which it was set, as can be seen from my sketch with the window wide open.
"Now, please come over here so you can see the end and the side wall and the roof. Now, right inside of that little bit of a box of a place,and it's only one room, as you can see Mr. Dickens wrote the last chapters of `Pickwick.' I can tell you just how big it is it is only ten feet long and eight feet wide and eight feet high, and in one corner next to the hall where we entered is a fireplace, no bigger than a work-basket, holding about two handfuls of coal. His writing-table was moved close to this window, where he could look out onto the garden. Isn't it pitiful to think how he suffered when he was young?"
I looked about me, taking in the low brick wall dividing the burial plot in which I stood from the burial plot next door, noted the starved lilac-bush, robbed of most of its breakable branches by relic hunters, scanned the heaped-up garden bed not a spear of grass, just heaped-up brown earth like a new-filled grave ; counted the pale consumptive flowers, their drooping heads clinging to decrepit stalks and wabbly stems, and then, glancing at the sky, and the brave sun fighting its way through the haze, suddenly remembered it was the leafy month of June. Just such June days were, perhaps, the only days in which he could have worked with the window up, days when some stray bird or lost butterfly might have wandered in, imparting a momentary cheer. But, and here came the chilling thought what must have been that cramped box of a room in a November fog or a January thaw? He tells us all about it in "Our Mutual Friend." "A mouldy little plantation, a Cat preserve. Sparrows were there; cats were there, dry rot and wet rot were there."
My inspection over, the little lady in the shiny black silk began again:
"And this was not the least of his troubles in this house. His dear sister-in-law Mary died in that room over your head, just beside the roof of this extension. You can see it if you look up. Yes, the poor fellow had many, many troubles when he lived here, and yet during all this time, when his own heart was so sad, he was making everybody laugh the world over."
I thanked my very courteous and sympathetic guide, climbed back into my cab, and started to work not only on the front door, without the famous knocker, the one now in use is of bright brass, but its contiguous windows and upper iron balconies.
As I worked on, the several details of my subject took their place on my canvas, the modest sign telling passers-by that this was "The Dickens House" and the tablet affixed to the wall by the London County Council giving the years in which the great novelist occupied it. "The only one of Mr. Dickens's London residences," says Miss Lang in her "Literary London," "which remains unchanged."
My sketch completed, I opened Mr. Snowdon Ward's delightful " In Real Dickens Land" — I had brought the book with me, and learned that Mr. Dickens moved from his small rooms in Furnival's, where "Pickwick" was begun, to 48 Doughty Street, where the book was finished, in March, 1837; that "at this time Mary Hogarth, his wife's younger sister, and Fred, his own next younger brother, were living with him, for even in the Furnival's Inn days he commenced that open-hearted hospitality, always beginning with the members of his own family, and which throughout his life was one of his great characteristics. It was a gay, happy, enthusiastic household," continues Ward, "working hard, laughing hard, and playing hard; always busy, always restless, and every member enthusiastically bound up in the happiness of all the rest. But a great shock and a great separation were in store for them. On May 7th the whole party had been to some entertainment and returned home in the best of spirits, when, almost as soon as they entered the house, poor Mary Hogarth fell back into Dickens's arms and died almost immediately. The terrible impression made upon him by this loss remained through all his life, and coloured many of his scenes of pathos." Her tombstone bears the simple epitaph written by Dickens,"Young, beautiful, and good, God numbered her among his angels at the early age of seven-teen.'' The shock was so great that for two months the publication of "Pickwick" was interrupted. It was in this house, too, that Dickens's second daughter, Kate Macready, now Mrs. Perugini, was born in 1839. At the close of that year the family moved from Doughty Street to No. 1 Devonshire Terrace.
That same afternoon I again made my way through the narrow hall and out into the mouldy little plantation and began work on the rear extension. The June sun had mounted high enough in the interim to send its rays over the next roof, throwing a long slant of light into the desolate yard, as a watchman manages the gleam of a bull's-eye lantern when in search of some mysterious prowler.
The elder of the two ladies, hearing my step on the oilcloth, rose from her armchair, felt her way along the narrow, dark passageway, moved noiselessly to where I sat, and stood looking over my shoulder to assure herself, no doubt, of my promises that no polluting touch of any kind should drop from my fingers. A moment later she crept back to the angle of the extension wall and settled herself slowly into a flat, drawn-out Chinese chair, with a ready-to-be-shaved attitude, her head tilted back, her slippered feet touching the end bar. The companion lady now brought out not only a newspaper but a parrot in a tin, circular cage, a red-and-green parrot with a topknot, white, horned beak, and an insistent voice. The paper she spread over the recumbent figure, which promptly went to sleep. The cage she deposited on the bricks on one side of the Chinese chair.
I worked on, the old lady breathing gently, the paper crinkling and readjusting itself to the dear woman's pulsations, the parrot regarding me all the time out of one yellow eye, ready to shriek out at any move on my part that would disturb the serenity of the sleeping figure.
Yes, there is no question that Mr. Dickens was greatly blessed in the variety, in the quality, and in the quantity of the various delightful characters living within reach of his pen.