Catherine and Charles – great expectations? A guest blog post by Dave Walker, Local Studies Librarian, Kensington Central Library
March 14, 2012
Charles John Huffam Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth on April 2nd 1836 at St Luke’s Church, Sydney Street, Chelsea. He was 24, she was 20. The young author had been disappointed in love before with a young woman called Maria Beadnell. According to some biographies he set his social sights too high. Some accounts also say that Catherine bore a resemblance to the woman he had lost. But whatever his intentions and her expectations, there is no reason for us to think they were not in love when they went to St Lukes’s that day.
St Luke’s was then the new church in Chelsea built to cope with the expanding number of parishioners in the parish. The Old Church down by the river on Cheyne Walk was too small to cope with all the worshippers who wanted to attend services. The new church was closer to the centre of the parish. It was bright and tall and in those days sat in spacious grounds.
Catherine’s family lived in York Place, a terrace of houses on Fulham road, quite near the church. Charles moved to nearby Selwood Terrace to be near his fiancé. Although as Selwood Terrace is on the opposite side on the Fulham Road, he was living in the Kensington parish rather than Chelsea. York Place is gone now. That part of Chelsea was extensively redeveloped in the early part of the 20th century and the narrow streets of small houses have given way to the Edwardian blocks of flats built by charitable trusts – Samuel Lewis, Sutton – and to hospital buildings – the Royal Marsden, the Brompton. York Place itself was located where the Chester Beatty Institute building is today. One local landmark of Catherine’s day that still exists is the Jewish Cemetery next to the Institute which appears on the Thompson’s map of Chelsea of 1836.
Here at Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies, we have a photograph of the house where Dickens stayed. It looks modest but comfortable. Dickens later referred to the “barbarity” of Chelsea so it doesn’t sound as though he liked it that much.
In 1836 Chelsea was only partly urbanised. Many of the streets were unpaved. Not far from Catherine’s home there were market gardens, inns and cottages. The Chelsea /South Kensington area still had a pleasant rural atmosphere as shown in this watercolour by William Cowen. It was quite a different kind of place from the dark grim streets of central London to which Charles took Catherine back after their honeymoon.
Catherine Hogarth is now remembered as the wife Dickens abandoned for a younger mistress. But he and she were young then, optimistic about their new life together. I think Chelsea in 1836 might have been the perfect background for young love and Catherine at least may have remembered it fondly.
Does inspiration linger? Visiting young writer in residence Femi Martin at the Charles Dickens museum
March 5, 2012
My grandmother was a great teller of ghost stories. She always maintained that old houses keep an energy or imprint of those who have lived in them. Thus if you walked into a room where someone was murdered, you’d feel a chill or a sense of disturbance. Or is it that because you know someone died there, you feel a direct, almost physical, connection with the past?
Either way, walking into the Dickens Museum doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Instead it’s a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle outside. The museum is Dickens’s old home. He famously lived in this house, 48 Doughty Street, in the heart of London from 1837 to 1839. Only two years but it was here that he wrote two of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
I find Femi Martin, Cityread London’s young writer in residence, comfortably set up in a corner of the museum’s cafe. She is sitting by the window with her laptop looking out onto the garden courtyard. She says it’s a surprisingly peaceful place given the manic energy and extraordinary output of Dickens himself.
I’m currently about three quarters of the way through Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Dickens. At first I found the break neck pace of Dickens’s life inspiring and motivating. But I’m starting to feel exhausted by the sheer enormity of all that he packed into every day.
I ask Femi if writing in the very place that Dickens once held his quill is inspiring or intimidating? She’s found that it’s both. She says when she’s struggling to complete one piece of flash fiction in a day, it can a bit overwhelming to dwell on Dickens’s prolific and extraordinary achievements.
Femi defines flash fiction as any story under a thousand words. It’s a form of writing that has recently gained huge popularity through the internet. Though the tools of writing have changed, she points out that Dickens might not have found the form itself that alien. His own novels were serialised through magazines. He also wrote many articles and short stories. Femi feels these often took a more relaxed, folksy feel that would have worked perfectly for the immediacy of the web. Would Dickens have been addicted to twitter?
Dickens also loved to read his work live to an audience and performed for audiences of thousands all around the UK and America. This is something Femi finds particularly inspiring as she regularly performs her flash fiction as part of London’s thriving spoken word scene.
Femi believes that while Dickens’ social themes continue to have great resonance in today’s society, what appeals to her most is his confidence in his own voice. He wrote about what he wanted to write and wasn’t afraid to make connections between his own life and those of others.
Dickens also loved to socialise. Femi has found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her residency has been other writers and artists coming to visit her. The museum’s cafe is free to enter and she thinks it could make a wonderful creative hub. A plan I can’t help thinking Dickens would approve of.
What Should Writers Write About? – if Charles Dickens were writing today
March 3, 2012
‘What had your brother done?’ I ask.
I lean forward to hear the young woman’s answer. ‘He got in a fight. He knocked someone out. He thought they were unconscious but they died. Now he’s doing 99 years.’
We are sitting at a table strewn with newspapers in the waiting area of BBC Radio 4′s Saturday Live in Broadcasting House in central London.
The young woman’s name is Natasha Owen-Jones. She was adopted as a baby and in two weeks is going to meet her brother for the first time. He is in a state penitentiary in Minnesota. He’s served ten years and has another twenty to go before even being considered for parole. Her story sounds like the kind of plot Dickens might have been accused of exaggerating. Only it happens to be true. Would Dickens think that social justice has improved since Victorian times?
At a literature seminar in Berlin, the British Council is asking writers what Dickens would write about if he was alive today? A.S Byatt thinks perhaps the old questions of identity in modern guise; the children of sperm and egg donors. Louise Doughty believes he would care more about the development of language than any social agenda. But Toby Litt argues
‘His core social mission was to change things through writing prose – I don’t think he would have that mission in prose, I don’t think he would feel he was doing enough good in prose fiction.’ Would Dickens have turned to writing TV drama or even soap operas? After all his own tales were initially serialised with plenty of cliff hangers to keep readers dying to know what would happen next.
Back at Saturday Live, our ever charming presenter, the Rev Richard Coles, ushers us all into the studio. Alain de Botton explains that his latest book, Religion for Atheists, is about how nonbelievers can still benefit from religion. Perhaps not a vision the Victorians would relate to? Yet as de Botton talks about the importance of kindness and how religious rituals give us some much needed space to be sympathetic and good, he sounds very much like Dickens in A Christmas Carol. Have our fundamental philosophies of life changed all that much?