Charles Dickens' home gets a makeover

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Charles Dickens' home gets a makeover
AP
RESTORED HISTORY: People walk past Charles Dickens’ home, part of the Charles Dickens Museum in London
The former London home of Charles Dickens reopened on Monday, after an eight-month, £3.1 million ($5 million) refurbishment celebrating the author’s bicentenary.

Dickens lived at 48 Doughty Street in central London with his family between 1837 and 1839. There, in his mid-20s, he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, novels that made him a rising literary star. The four-storey brick row house was restored to its early Victorian splendour to feel less like a museum and more atmospheric, museum director Florian Schweizer told Reuters.

“We wanted to recreate it like a home, so visitors could feel like they’re actually visiting Charles Dickens and that he might step back in at any time,” Schweizer said.

Inaugurated in 1925, the museum is the author’s only surviving London house. Its redesign, largely funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund, comes in the year marking the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and opens the house’s kitchen and attic to the public for the first time.

Visitors are guided through the dimly lit home not by museum signage on the walls but painted silhouettes of a young Dickens, with long hair and no beard, challenging the mainstream image of “the older Dickens”, said Schweizer.

They can tour the writer’s dining room, wine cellar (“Dickens loved his booze”), bedroom and study. There, surrounded by ceiling-high bookshelves, stands the author’s original desk, where he finished The Pickwick Papers and dreamed up the characters of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

“He could have just been a one-novel sensation, but it was here that he built on that first reputation made with The Pickwick Papers, and by the time he moved out it was pretty clear he was there to stay,” Schweizer said, noting the house had an “inspirational” dimension, especially for young visitors. “It’s the beginning of a career — that makes it special.” Dickens lived in the house with his wife Catherine, the eldest three of their 10 children and his sister-in-law Mary. Mary died in the house at age 17, a heartbreaking episode which left Dickens incapable of writing for weeks and inspired many of the angelic heroines and heroes in his novels.

The bedroom she died in is a space to reflect on the author’s relationship with death and displays extremely rare photographs of the 1865 railway accident in Staplehurst, Kent, which Dickens survived with his young mistress Ellen Ternan. This “more evocative, more immersive” version of the 87-year-old museum will offer guided costumed tours and workshops for school groups, Schweizer said.

The museum has also expanded into neighbouring 49 Doughty Street, which has been transformed into a learning centre to accommodate school trips and improve access for the disabled. The Charles Dickens Museum has so far welcomed about 30,000 visitors per year, with almost half coming from overseas, and numbers are expected to rise to 45,000 in 2013.

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