The inspiration for the next Helen Oddfellow mystery is Charles Dickens, the great London novelist. I took a trip to the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where Dickens lived with his with Catherine and young family from 1837 to 1839.
The three-storey house was, as Dickens wrote of it, ‘a frightfully first-class Family Mansion, involving awful responsibilities’.
For a recently-married young journalist aged just 24, with a baby son and a second child on the way, taking a lease on Doughty Street was an ambitious statement of intent, especially as he had only recently begun to establish himself as a successful writer.
Certain rooms of the house are set up as they might have been when Dickens and his family lived there in the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign. These include the dining room, its table set for a merry dinner – Dickens famously loved to entertain – and the study, with a desk used by Dickens towards the end of his life. Here you can see pages of hand-written manuscripts from some of the novels, and pity the compositor and printer who had to make sense of the close-written handwriting.
Upstairs, the Dickens’ bedroom is made cosy with the slipper bath in front of the fire and a four poster bed. Next to it, a poignant reminder of the tragedy that struck the young family. Mary Hogarth, Catherine’s young sister, stayed with them often, and was a great friend of both. She died suddenly, aged just 17, having been taken ill after a trip to the theatre. The room in which she died is laid out as if for her return, with a white night dress across the bed. Dickens was grief-stricken, missing deadlines for the first and last time in his life. Mary soon made an appearance in his fiction, an inspiration for the saintly Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist.
The museum has an exhibition about Oliver Twist at present, and a map of the area of London around Doughty Street shows how Dickens drew on his surroundings when writing his serial novel. Fagin’s gang of child thieves were located in Saffron Hill, a short walk east and richly detailed in the novel. The kindly Mr Brownlow lived a little north of Bloomsbury in a villa in Pentonville. Oliver realises the nature of Fagin’s business when he witnesses the Artful Dodger pick a pocket at a book stall in bustling Clerkenwell Green.
I finished my visit by downloading an audio guide from the museum, which took me on a tour of the streets around the museum. From spotting ornate coal holes on the pavement, to considering the significance of Victorian boot scrapers outside houses on James Street, a peek into Doughty Mews and the parish markers denoting the boundary between parishes next to the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, it’s a fascinating glimpse into what remains of London’s past. I thought I knew these streets pretty well – but it showed me plenty that I had overlooked.