Do you like Dickens? He divides people. His novels are rich, sprawling and overflowing with charm. But many find them bloated, overly sentimental and pinned on improbable coincidences. Whichever view you take, the Museum of London's new exhibition will enthrall.
Two years in the making, and 200 years after his birth, Dickens and London deals more with the teeming Victorian metropolis than with its greatest literary inhabitant. Here you'll find a rusted door from Newgate Prison, there you'll spy a row of Punch and Judy puppets. One wall is decorated with a detailed street map from the period; the next sports a sign from the vanished Bull and Mouth pub. This is a good old-fashioned museum exhibition, light on the interactives and stuffed with peculiar odds and ends.
But look a bit closer at this delightful hotch-potch and you'll find Dickensian connections everywhere. A sentry box from Furnival's Inn stands in the middle of the room. The novelist would have clapped eyes on it every day when he lived in the area. A case of clay pipes and potsherds are readily dismissed until you learn that they were excavated from Jacob's Island in Bermondsey, scene of Bill Sykes' demise in Oliver Twist. And then there are objects directly connected with the author: annotated manuscript proofs, the box he delivered lectures from, and the very chair from which he wrote A Tale Of Two Cities.
An unexpected highlight is provided by the numerous paintings from the period. The canvas of St Mary-Le-Strand nestling among ramshackle shops is superb, and so utterly different to the multi-lane Aldwych junction we know today. Meanwhile, the view down Buckingham Street towards the still-present watergate and old Hungerford Bridge is enchanting. Why aren't these paintings famous?
Whether you love or loathe the great author, you can enter this curiosity shop with great expectations that won't be dashed.
Dickens and London runs at the Museum of London from 9 December 2011 to 10 June 2012. Entrance is £8/£6.