LONDON – Charles Dickens’ London home has gone from “Bleak House” to “Great Expectations.”
For years, the four-story brick row house where the author lived with his young family was a dusty and slightly neglected museum, a mecca for Dickens scholars but overlooked by most visitors to London.
Now, after a $4.8 million makeover, it has been restored to bring the writer’s world to life.
“The Dickens Museum felt for many years a bit like Miss Havisham, covered in dust,” said museum director Florian Schweizer, who slips references to Dickens’ work seamlessly into his speech. Miss Havisham is the reclusive character central to the plot of “Great Expectations.”
Now the house is transformed. Or, as Schweizer said, quoting from “Great Expectations”: “I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”
Few authors remain as widely quoted, read and adapted as Dickens, 200 years after his birth. And no writer is more closely associated with London than Dickens, whose accounts of Victorian workhouses, debtors’ prisons and the urban poor embarrassed the establishment into acting to alleviate poverty.
He lived all over the city in his impoverished youth and increasingly affluent adulthood, but the house at 48 Doughty St. in the Bloomsbury area of London is his only home in the city to survive.
Dickens lived in the house between 1837 and 1839, a short but fruitful period that saw the birth of his first two children. It’s the place he wrote “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Oliver Twist,” going in the process from jobbing journalist to rising author whose serialized stories were gobbled up by a growing fan base.
Dickens leased the simple but elegant Georgian house, built in 1807, for 80 pounds a year.
The restored museum has all the modern trappings, including audio-guides, a “learning center” and a cafe. There also is a temporary exhibit of costumes from Mike Newell’s new film adaptation of “Great Expectations,” starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.
But at its heart it is a house — the home of a proud young family man. Visitors can see the blue-walled dining room where Dickens entertained his friends, complete with original sideboard and a portrait of the 25-year-old author looking, it has to be said, pretty pleased with himself.
Upstairs are the drawing room where Dickens moved guests to laughter and tears with readings from his works — visitors can hear actor Simon Callow do the honors on recordings — and the bedroom where his sister-in-law Mary died at the age of 17, a tragedy that may have influenced the many death scenes in Dickens’ novels.
The rooms are furnished with Dickens’ own possessions — his writing desk and chair, his wardrobe and shaving kit, copies of his books annotated in his cramped handwriting.
“We’re trying to make it feel like a home,” Schweizer said. “As if Dickens had just stepped out.”
The museum doesn’t skip over the darker periods of Dickens’ life.
On the top floor, the former servants’ quarters hold a set of bars from Marshalsea prison, where Dickens’ father was imprisoned for his debts, and jars from the boot-polish factory where 12-year-old Charles was sent to work.
The experience of financial insecurity marked Dickens for life, and drove his workaholic quest for success.
He wrote more than 20 books, had 10 children, traveled the world on lecture tours and campaigned for social change until his death from a stroke in 1870 at the age of 58.
The museum’s directors have been criticized for shutting the facility during most of the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth in 1812 — and during the tourism bonanza that accompanied the London Olympics.
The museum hopes to draw 45,000 visitors a year, a 50 percent rise on pre-refurbishment levels. Schweizer thinks Dickens’ future has never been rosier.
“There has always been interest. I think the bicentenary has taken it to a whole new level,” Schweizer said.