"He was a great traveller," the journalist George Augustus Sala noted in an obituary of Dickens. "Where he had travelled longest, where he had looked deepest and learned most, was in inner London."
Dickens was not, therefore, a traveller either in antique lands or in the realms of fashion. He was a purposeful walker not a lounger. His walks always informed his novels. Indeed, it might be said that they actually shaped his novels. Virtually all of his major fiction is set in London and it is the various, complex, disconcertingly multifaceted, and densely populated nature of a great 19th century city that determined the structure of that fiction.
Dickens does not describe many of the 'sights' of London that survive more or less unchanged today: the Tower, Saint Paul's, the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey. Rather his London is what Sala describes as the "back streets ... the courts and alleys ... the shabby sidling streets" and "the dank and oozy wharfs of the water-side". These have all too often vanished thanks to slum-clearance, speculative redevelopment or wartime destruction. Dickens would readily recognise the street-plan of London, but he would be dumbfounded by the reconstruction of so many of the houses, the shops and the commercial properties that characterised the areas he knew best.
The one area of central London that remains substantially intact, and which Dickens commonly describes in his novels, is what we sometimes call 'Legal London'. Dickens did not have much love for the actual workings of the English Law or for befuddling English Lawyers, but the Inns of Court which figure so frequently in the fiction (and especially in Bleak House and in Our Mutual Friend) remain much as he would have known them.
Gray's Inn (where he worked as boy and where Tommy Traddles has his chambers in David Copperfield) suffered grievously in the Blitz, but a walk through Lincoln's Inn Fields and through Lincoln's Inn itself is replete with Dickensian memories. Go from there down Bell Yard and across the Strand into Middle Temple and you remain in a quintessential part of Dickens's London.
If you have the proper Dickensian energy, walk back northwards along Chancery Lane, digressing into Cursitor Street and, finding your way back through Gray's Inn and Raymond Buildings, which overlook the garden, you will find yourself at the bottom of Doughty Street. Dickens lived at number 48 in the late 1830s. The house is now the Charles Dickens Museum and welcomes you in for further exploration.
Andrew Sanders is Emeritus Professor of English, Durham University, and author of Charles Dickens’s London (Robert Hale, 2011).
Restless Shadow: Dickens the Campaigner reveals how important walking was to Dickens’s method. He walked every day, and sometimes at night, at a pace and over distances that would leave most of us breathless and exhausted. They brought him face-to-face and into 'sympathetic relations' with his subjects. Vitally, his walks helped him develop novel kinds of investigative writing that moved through all ‘nooks and corners’, exposing what life was like for the most desperate to an unaware public. Dickens’s walking stick, then, was perhaps almost as important for his writing as his pen.
The exhibition runs until 29 October 2017 at the Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 2LX.