“Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town!”
Nick Hornby, The Believer
In this multitude of characters, one stands out and occupies a special place in the history of literature. Dickensian London is a living creature, a character in itself. As such, its descriptions are vivid, detailed. Dickens creates an image which is evocative of his age.
Undoubtedly, the age depicted by Dickens’ quill pen is the period full of contradictions. Rags-to-riches stories were often, but even more often were disillusionment, poverty, misery. In Dickens’ novels we see every inch of this world, we can hear the cries of the poor, we can smell the Old Father Thames. What is more, we can easily get lost in the midst of small, narrow passages, surrounded by the night and fog.
In this article, we shall visit several places which are recurrent in Dickens’ fiction, notably in “Great Expectations” .
- Restoration House in Rochester is thought to be the inspiration for the legendary Satis House, Miss Havisham’s home
“I had heard of Miss Havisham up town – everybody for miles round, had heard of Miss Havisham up town – as an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.”
Pip’s first encounter with London: “While I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.”
- Smithfield Market, Newgate prison and St. Paul’s cathedral
“So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles; and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on. While I looked about me here, an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice asked me if I would like to step in and hear a trial or so: informing me that he could give me a front place for half-a-crown, whence I should command a full view of the Lord Chief Justice in his wig and robes ”
- Barnard’s Inn
“…I had supposed that establishment to be an hotel kept by Mr. Barnard, to which the Blue Boar in our town was a mere public-house. Whereas I now found Barnard to be a disembodied spirit, or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for Tom-cats.”
- The Temple
“Alterations have been made in that part of the Temple since that time, and it has not now so lonely a character as it had then, nor is it so exposed to the river. We lived at the top of the last house, and the wind rushing up the river shook the house that night, like discharges of cannon, or breakings of a sea. When the rain came with it and dashed against the windows, I thought, raising my eyes to them as they rocked, that I might have fancied myself in a storm-beaten lighthouse.”