Dickens at 209

“I always go to bed at eight o’clock, except when it is my birthday, and then I sit up to supper.”—Charles Dickens, letter to Hastings Hughes, December 12, 1838.

“This is my birthday. Many happy returns of the day to you and me. I took it into my head yesterday to get up an impromptu dinner on this auspicious occasion—only my own folks, Leigh Hunt, [Harrison] Ainsworth, and [John] Forster.”—Charles Dickens, letter to J. P. Harley, February 7, 1839.

The great Boz was born on this day in 1812. I commend to your attention the following excerpts from my book Victoriana:

Dickens and the Stage
A Ghost Story for Christmas

and assorted Dickensian posts:

London By Gaslight
A Map of Dickensian London
A Lost Portrait of Charles Dickens Rediscovered
A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home
A Dickensian Shop Sign

Introduction to Victoriana

Hardcover, 160 pp (New York: Castle Imprint, 2019)
Barnes & Noble

“That after men might turn the page / And light on fancies true & sweet / And kindle with a loyal heat / To fair Victoria’s golden age”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, To the Queen (draft), 1851.

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity in Britain. The transatlantic telegraph, Bessemer steel, modern sewage systems, and the first forays into analytical computing were all introduced during this time, when the British Empire governed a quarter of the globe. In the Anglosphere of the twenty-first century we have inherited the technologies of the nineteenth century but we have not inherited the culture that once contained them. The World Wars obliterated that culture. In the crisis of the early twentieth century the context in which the modern world had been developing was suddenly removed.

Was a different modernity possible? Something more romantic? Something more authentic? A future of dirigibles, telephones, Prussian and Russian monarchy on the Continent, railways (instead of motorways), heritage crafts, muscular Christianity, classical education, art and architecture that continued to develop within the Western vernacular not against it?

The Victorian period occupies a special place in our popular culture. Every year it is recreated on page, stage, and screen in pastiche. No other era is revisited with such regularity. What is it that fascinates us? I believe we see in the Victorian past a future that might have been. Or that might yet be. The Victorians were forced by the exigencies of history to find a balance between tradition and innovation, hierarchy and populism, community and individuality, the old and the new. These forces coexisted, if not always comfortably, then at least sympathetically and effectively. We have lost that balance. Sooner or later the exigencies of our own history will demand that we strike it again.

This book involves a cultural history of nineteenth-century Britain. I write “a” cultural history and not “the” cultural history because it is by no means exhaustive. The major figures in arts and letters are examined in detail: Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite painters particularly. But you will read nothing of Darwin, Marx, or Freud. And you will read rather more about Thomas De Quincey than you might in another book about the period. Insomuch as I have written a general introduction to Victorian arts and letters, I have also, necessarily, written a very personal one. I trust that you will encounter in these pages interesting people and works previously unfamiliar, and familiar ones from unexpected angles. If I am successful you will come any with a touchstone to that lost future that still fascinates us. What you will make of it (indeed, what we will make of it as a society) remains to be seen.

A Dickensian Collection Returns Home

The Standard reports:

A huge “treasure trove” is being brought to the Charles Dickens Museum after a £1.8 million deal struck with the owner of the world’s largest private collection.

Among the more than 300 items are previously unseen letters and original artwork from books such as Oliver Twist. Cindy Sughrue, the director of the museum, which is based in Doughty Street, said the haul was a “once in a generation” offer.

It took three years to organise after they were first approached by the American owner. She said the man, who developed an interest in Dickens after reading Oliver Twist as a boy, came from “fairly humble beginnings but became a successful businessman and the first thing he bought was a first edition of Oliver Twist”.

The collection was built up over four decades.

Among the items they chose to bring back to London were jewellery belonging to Dickens, 25 books from his own library and letters covering everything from his travels over “a sea of ice” in Switzerland to his instructions for a dinner party where guests were to have “a good supply of champagne” but the gin was to be kept “in ice under the table” just for him and a close friend.

The First Christmas Card

In 1843 Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card. Cole was a British civil servant, later the founding director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to an article on the V&A website, he was “instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards.”

The same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Cole commissioned a properly Pickwickian illustration by the artist John Callcott Horsley, which he reproduced on 1000 cards. These were “offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop.” Though we now know it was ahead of its time.

Twenty-one copies of the card have survived. One of them is on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in London through April 2020 as part of the exhibition Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas.

A Portrait of Charles Dickens Returns Home


Last November I wrote about the rediscovery of an 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” The much deteriorated portrait was sold as junk at a market in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 2017, subsequently identified and restored by British art dealers Philip Mould and Company, and unveiled at The Dickens Museum in the author’s former home, 48 Doughty Street, London.

The museum launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the portrait from Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. Today the Dickens Museum announced that it has acquired the painting:

The Gillies portrait will go on display from 24th October 2019 and will be a highlight of the festive season. The portrait will become a regular part of the Museum’s programme of displays, though it will require times away from display to preserve the quality of the 176-year-old watercolour.

Read more about the acquisition at here.

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

A Lost Portrait of Dickens Rediscovered

Portrait of Charles John Huffman Dickens (1812-1870), wearing dark jacket and cravat, white waistcoat, his dark hair worn collar-length in long curls, by Margaret Gillies RWS, 1843; Photo: Philip Mould & Company

An 1843 portrait of Charles Dickens was rediscovered in South Africa after being lost for 174 years. At a market in Pietermaritzburg last year, “[a] man paid the equivalent of £27 for a cardboard tray containing a metal lobster, an old recorder, a brass plate and a small painting which was so covered with mould that the face could barely be made out,” writes Mark Brown in The Guardian.

The painting has been identified as a portrait of Dickens by Margaret Gillies, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. Gillies painted the novelist during the very weeks when he first began writing A Christmas Carol. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that it depicted “the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes.” Gillies had lost track of the painting by 1860. It seems to have been in the possession of a brother-in-law of her adopted daughter when he emigrated to South Africa in the 1860s.

The portrait is being unveiled today in London at The Dickens Museum where it will hopefully become part of the permanent collection. The museum is trying to raise funds to purchase it from the London art dealers Philip Mould and Company for £180,000. To support this effort, donate here.

A Map of Dickensian London

The writers at Londonist created this map of real-life London locations featured in the novels of Charles Dickens.

The map (embedded below) marks sites mentioned in the novels but also “the many addresses that Dickens called home, so you can see how his novels often feature those areas he was most familiar with.”

A Note on Flânerie

To walk, to meditate, to observe, to explore: these are simple but precious joys. The French have a certain type of man: the flâneur. This is translated as “stroller,” “saunterer,” or “lounger.” The flâneur is a man who walks—not, like the boulevardier, to make an exhibition of himself—but aimlessly, with cultivated leisure and openness to his surroundings. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets” and “botanist of the sidewalk.”

Writers are often flâneurs because flânerie—the act of strolling—is such a useful stimulant to the creative mind. The great writers of the nineteenth century were all heroic pedestrians. Dickens walked fifteen miles per day. His nightly perambulations around London provided him with characters, scenes, and bits of dialogue for his books. He once set out at two o’clock in the morning and walked the thirty miles from London to his country home in Gad’s Hill, Kent. Thomas De Quincey walked fifteen to twenty miles per day, in part to alleviate the effects of withdrawal from laudanum. Coleridge on occasion walked forty miles. Thomas Carlyle might have held the record at fifty four miles in a single day.

Many of these writers addressed flânerie in their works. Sketches by Boz consists in part of a long, lounging stroll across the length and breadth of London, as seen by Dickens. Arthur Machen wrote directly and thoughtfully on the subject. For Machen, flânerie was an almost religious experience: the attentive flâneur could see through the landscape to the genius loci, and to the various intersections of life and history and imagination and place. “For if you think of it,” Machen wrote, in The London Adventure, “there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”

Machen spent his formative years walking the fairy-haunted landscape of rural Wales. When he arrived in London he at first despaired of the change. But he found that he found by walking and exploring that he could move beyond the imposing and claustrophobic limits of the urban environment. In one of his earliest essays, “Rus in Urbe,” published in 1890, he writes of the imagination piercing “through the unlovely streets, the dark fogs, the grimey mists.” In the novella, A Fragment of Life, he gives a description of the city transfigured in the second sight of the flâneur:

London seemed a city of the Arabian Nights, and its labyrinths of streets an enchanted maze; its long avenues of lighted lamps were as starry systems, and its immensity became for him an image of the endless universe. He could well imagine how pleasant it might be to linger in such a world as this, to sit apart and dream, beholding the strange pageant played before him; but the Sacred Well was not for common use, it was for the cleansing of the soul, and the healing of the grievous wounds of the spirit. There must be yet another transformation: London had become Bagdad; it must at last be transmuted to Syon, or in the phrase of one of his old documents, the City of the Cup.

In his 1923 memoir, Things Near and Far, Machen insists, “it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find these secrets elsewhere.”

I love to walk. I walk everywhere. There are exceptions for practicality, of course. In the country I often bicycle. Over long distances I travel by train, plane, or boat. But I spend as little time as possible in automobiles. I think everyone would be happier if they walked more. The upheaval of our infrastructure, economy, and way of life to accommodate the automobile in the twentieth century was a tragic mistake.


Baudelaire, Charles, (1972) Selected Writings on Art and Literature. New York: Viking.

Machen, Arthur. (1923) The Works of Arthur Machen (Caerleon Edition). London: Martin Secker.

Machen, Arthur. (1924) The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering. London: Martin Secker.

Machen, Arthur. (1992) Ritual & Other Stories. Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus Press.


A Dickensian Shop Sign

The Little Wooden Midshipman outside Norie’s in Leadenhall Street, London (photo: Bishopsgate Institute, via Spitalfields Life)

A shop’s sign in the likeness of a naval officer plays a central role in Charles Dickens’s 1848 novel, Dombey and Son. The offices of the titular firm are located “round the corner” from East India House, whose ornate façade is “teeming with suggestions of precious stuffs and stones, tigers, elephants, howdahs, hookahs, umbrellas, palm trees, palanquins, and gorgeous princes of a brown complexion sitting on carpets, with their slippers very much turned up at the toes.” In the vicinity are “outfitting warehouses ready to pack off anybody anywhere.” Dickens identifies, “little timber midshipmen in obsolete naval uniforms, eternally employed outside the shopdoors of nautical instrument-makers in taking observations of the hackney coaches.”

One such effigy is described in detail, thrusting “out above the pavement, right leg foremost, with a suavity the least endurable, and had the shoe buckles and flapped waistcoat the least reconcilable to human reason, and bore at its right eye the most offensively disproportionate piece of machinery.” Dickens places this figure outside the shop of Solomon Gills, a ship’s instrument-maker, and it reappears throughout the novel.

The sign of the little wooden midshipman was based on a real sign. It hung outside the chart-maker’s shop, Norie’s, at 157 Leadenhall Street in London. Dickens knew it well. In his 1860 memoir, The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes, “My day’s no-business beckoning me to the east-end of London, I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden, and had got past my Little Wooden Midshipman, after affectionately patting him on one leg of his knee-shorts, for old acquaintance sake.”

Louisa Price, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, offers a concise history of the effigy, which was carved around the year 1800:

The first owner of the Midshipman was William Heather who, in 1793, opened a business at 157 Leadenhall Street selling charts, sailing directions and navigation textbooks.

He also ran a nautical academy from the premises. To advertise, he placed outside the shop this little wooden figure taking a nautical reading.

From 1812 the shop was named ‘Norie’s’ after its new owner, William Norie, who was an apprentice of Heather’s. The Midshipman (or ‘little man’, as he was known by the staff) stood over the door, but was later moved to street level.

Staff felt it an honour to be entrusted with the daily ritual of ‘taking out’ the little man in the morning and ‘bringing in’ when the shop closed in the evening.

At the end of the 19th century, Norie’s merged with other chart-making businesses, becoming Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson. The Little Midshipman took up residence on a pedestal outside the new shop.

In 1917, as air raids threatened, he retreated inside. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was moved to the countryside, narrowly escaping destruction as the shop he called home was bombed.

The company survives today and still operates as publishers of nautical charts and books with the Little Midshipman as their logo.

In 1946, Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson gave the sign on loan to the Charles Dickens Museum, which operates in the author’s former home at 48 Doughty Street in London. It remains in the collection to this day.


Dickens, Charles. (1848) Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. London:  Bradbury & Evans.

Dickens, Charles. (1860) The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall.

Price, Louisa; Miller, Ben. (December 29, 2014) “Curator’s Choice: Louisa Price on The Little Wooden Midshipman at the Charles Dickens Museum,” Culture24. http://www.culture24.org.uk/curators-choice/art511413-curator-choice-louisa-price-on-the-little-wooden-midshipman-at-the-charles-dickens-museum