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May 3, 2010

For a writer and lover of literature, few pursuits are as engaging as the literary pilgrimage. Seeing the physical place where a favorite author lived and worked can get the imagination fired in a new way, inspiring frenetic activity of one’s own—if a writer is open to it. I heartily endorse such pilgrimages as a new way of “seeing”.

Only trip to London with a group of Arcadia University freshmen last month, I spent the morning of our “free day” visiting the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, located handily between the British Library and the British Museum. Lucky for me, I was able to walk to the four-story brownstone from my hotel which meant I could bask in the neighborhood’s famed literary ambiance as well. Dickens lived here only from 1837 to 1839, but it is the sole surviving home of the author, housing the world’s most important collection of material relating to the novelist—over 100,000 items.

The years he lived at 48 Doughty Street were a happy and highly productive period of Dickens’ life. The visitor gets the sense of the 25-year-old man Dickens was when he moved in: a young husband with a first baby and another on the way, busy establishing his fame, juggling his work as a novelist, editor, and playwright—and reveling in his success. As with any life, shades of darkness overshadowed his days in the house as well. It was here that Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died on May 7, 1837 after a short illness. She was only 17 years old, yet Dickens was so attached to Mary that he couldn’t finish his installment of The Pickwick Papers for a period after her death. He was to mourn her for 30 years. Visitors can inspect her eerily gauze-draped bed in a rear bedroom on the second floor.

In fact, most of the rooms in the house are decorated with period furniture that recalls the way the house would have looked when Dickens lived there. A museum since 1935, there is a dusty, non-pristine quality to the house that further sets the mood. Gazing from the third floor front bedroom that was Dickens’ and his wife Catherine’s, the visitor sees the street view that he saw each morning and feels embraced by the four walls that once contained his busy life—not unlike our own modern-day complicated lives of living and writing.

It was from this house that Dickens began his life-long habit of walking the streets of London for inspiration—a superb pre-writing technique that killed more than two birds with one stone: he escaped the busy household, took exercise, and worked out his plot kinks all in one fell swoop. He wrote both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist during this period and his terrific energy was said to be palpable. In her superb biography Charles Dickens (2002, Viking Penguin), Jane Smiley writes: “At a pace of twelve to fifteen minutes per mile, he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles. Returning, as his brother-in-law said, ‘he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir…’” (23).

There’s a lesson to be learned there for all writers. We need to get away from our desks and our busy lives to gain inspiration regularly. I like to think of Charles Dickens striding out from his house at 48 Doughty Street and into the nighttime streets of London, his observant eyes cast at each shadow, finding inspiration for his characters at every turn as he made plans to weave the changing panorama that is London into the pages of his novels. Not a bad way to breathe life into “story” for any of us.

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