A Few Words on The Dickens Museum and The Whole Lot Of City To Take In

This morning’s walking tour was so extensive that I’ve honestly already lost track of half the sites we visited. The most striking overall impression was that of London as a kind of multigenerational bricolage of different cities, spanning eras and countless cultural influences, from the early Celts, Romans, and Anglo-Saxons to the Norman Invasion onward. This comes through in the architecture as clearly as anything. Inevitably, any city that’s gone through as much as London has—the plague, the blitz, multiple citywide fires including the Great Fire of 1666—will need to rebuild itself, in this case more times than I could keep track of. Accordingly, the city (not “the City of London” proper, necessarily, but London in the broader sense) is full of fascinating architectural juxtapositions. A building from the 16th century—like the “Old Curiosity Shop,” which seems to have a similarly odd/circuitous relationship with Dicken’s novel as Salem’s House of Seven Gables has with Hawthorne—will stand side by side with buildings from one or two centuries later, all in the same general vicinity as something from the Edwardian era or a Ballardian post-WWII brutalist tower. (I was thinking about Atlanta, how most of what we think of as Atlanta was built after Sherman built the original city to the ground—but that’s just one layer of destruction/rebuilding, where London has had several. It shows.)

It was also very cool visiting the Dickens museum. It’s interesting in part because the location itself is so mundane: I look at Dickens’ desk—the desk where he wrote the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby—and think, “ah, this sure does look like a desk.” It simultaneously demystifies Dickens’s process (because, hell, he was just a guy sitting at this desk writing those novels) and re-mystifies it (because I’m also just a guy sitting at a desk writing, but I’m not coming up with era-defining novels). It was also interesting reading the more detailed notes about his process: the mirror where he would practice imitating his characters, for a fuller “Method” approach to characterization. This comes through in his writing, I think. As we discussed in class, Dickens’ characters are often so broad that they verge on being flat or stereotypical, but they somehow work regardless. His characters almost always ring true, even at their most cartoonish. I’d still mostly attribute this feeling to Dickens being an astute observer of humanity (a person “on whom nothing is lost,” to paraphrase Henry James). But the Method-acting stuff could have helped him on the way, at least.

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