It’s the bicentenary of our favourite author’s birth, so 2012 is a great year to explore the life of Charles Dickens.
The small terrace house in Portsmouth where he was born on February 7, 1812, was a new-build when his parents moved in. It is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum and has been returned to its original state. The original parlour wallpaper has been copied in the same cosy warm red tones.
It was wallpaper that gave me an insight into an unusual aspect of the author. A letter written in 1845, when his London home was being redecorated, showed his definite ideas; he wanted the ‘new-paper’ to be blue and gold, or purple and gold: ‘I should wish it to be cheerful and gay.’
The infant Charles was in his first house for only five months before the family moved to a more humble lodging near the dockyard, where his father John was a clerk.
The family left Portsmouth for London when Charles was three but, undaunted, Portsmouth is laying on a year of bicentenary celebrations.
The Dickenses moved to Chatham in Kent when John was transferred to the dockyard there.
Childhood outings gave Charles an affection for nearby Rochester. It is featured in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers – and Rochester is equally fond of Dickens. It holds two festivals a year, in December and June.
Even on non-festival days, it’s clear Dickens was here. The High Street boasts Pip’s greengrocer, Little Dorrit Revival clothes shop, Peggotty’s Parlour tea room, Copperfield’s antiques and Nickleby’s card shop. The castle is recognisable from Dickens’s description: ‘glorious pile – frowning walls – dark nooks – crumbling staircases …’ The council chamber at the Guildhall is the one Pip visited in Great Expectations. Also there is the Dickens room and a replica prison hulk.
At the other end of the High Street is the 17th Century timber-framed mansion that was the model for Mr Pumblechook’s house, and the Elizabethan Eastgate House – Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers. Rochester’s gem is Restoration House, on which Dickens based Satis House, the home of Miss Havisham.
Children will enjoy Dickens World at Chatham Maritime (dickensworld.co.uk).
Nearby in Higham is Dickens’s final home, Gad’s Hill. He died there in 1870. For 90 years it has been a school, but it opens on two days a year. A new school is being built and a heritage centre opens there in 2013 (gadshillplace.com).
Hilary Macaskill is the author of Charles Dickens At Home
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