Catherine Brown

Victoriana in London 2013-14

February 2014



The website for tours of the St. Pancras Hotel


The Invisible Woman (dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2013)

The Dickens Museum (Doughty Street, London)

The Midland Grand Hotel (St Pancras)

Kings Cross Journeys (Victorian festival, King’s Cross Station, London, September 2013)

The Victorian Rooms (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)


It makes sense for a film about Dickens to concentrate on his theatricality. The 2003 biopic Sylvia showed up the problems of making a film about a poet qua poet: even writer’s block is easier to film than someone sitting down and doing some actual writing. With Dickens, though, you can recreate his stage plays, public readings, and his charismatic, showmanly self. The Invisible Woman (2013) does all of these things. Yet in doing them it creates a rift. On the one hand, we are given a man completely immersed in the crass, spectacular, farcical, sentimental world of Victorian theatre, of which Dickens took the essence and transformed it in thousands of pages of novelistic prose. On the other hand, we have a film which is straining its every fibre not to be the worst kind of Hollywood film – not to be melodramatic, sentimental, morally simplistic or simplistically idealistic, sexual, or violent. The result is that the film’s aesthetic, and that of the man it represents (with lots of though not unreserved sympathy) pull in opposite directions. How the film got its 12A rating – the same, lest we forget, as that of The Dark Knight – I have no idea (one glimpse of Joanna Scanlon’s naked rear excepted). The film’s discretion in sexual matters matches that of Victorian novels, Dickens’s included. But those novels, unlike this film, can’t be described as understated slow burns.

Fiennes, as director and lead actor, gets to eat his cake and have it, playing excess and directing restraint. This works well – though at times I think the film shows a bit too much restraint. Dickens’s treatment of his wife Catherine was still more cruel and messy than the film shows. A trace of Hollywood idealisation lingers in the representation of the supernaturally mature and good teenaged lover, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, played by Felicity Jones.

In keeping with its general restraint, the historicism is meticulous. The costumes and interior design are carefully of the 1860s (or ‘80s, when the film’s later scenes are set). The women wear no makeup, as would have been the case for all women who were not prostitutes in the period; anachronistic makeup is one of the quickest ways of dating a period drama – blue eyeshadow disfigures many a literary adaptation from the 1960s, such as the 1963 Tom Jones. This is to say that the film rewards someone who knows their 1860s. It also richly rewards someone who knows their Dickens; David Copperfield and Great Expectations are minutely and subtly alluded to. This is, in short, both in its matter and its method a film for English students. The film’s characters, and the audience they demand, are all very literary. Accessible drama of the kind that seems to be promised by the play The Frozen Deep – co-written with Wilkie Collins, two productions of which frame the film’s chronology – this isn’t.

For a more populist presentation of Dickens, you could try his Museum on Doughty Street in Holborn. Last December I ventured into one of its ‘Christmas Late Night Openings’. Mulled wine, of Dickensian-Christmas cheer, greeted me at the door. Then the ‘ghost’ of the Dickens’s housekeeper appeared, with mob cap and Cockney accent, and bustled us into the neighbouring house in which Charles and Catherine had their first years of marriage. There we were free to look round by ourselves – though there were more ghost-maids in every room to help us in case we had need of the gift shop or the exit. Two things struck me: first, that Dickens had made enough money from Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers to secure a rather fine Georgian house (oddly ill-assorted with such a Victorian writer, whom you imagine to have lived only in houses with at least a hint of Gothic about them). Second, it is wonderful to see his writing desk – not actually the one that he used in that house, but the one on which he wrote through the height of his career, and to its end, in Gad’s Hill. It slopes towards its sitter. Gravity determines that every page should be completed – and so they were, by the thousand. On the spot where the desk now stands, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were turned out. Plaques explaining the contents and function of each room appear across the house – but alas, since this was a candlelit evening, most of them were illegible. And most of the things they described were barely visible. It was a relief to emerge from the touristy twilight into the brightly-lit giftshop, of which the cheerful and imaginative commercialism (Christmas tree baubles saying ‘Bah, humbug!’, cardboard kits for a toy theatre of Great Expectations) assured you that Dickens’s London has not disappeared into the theme-park of the past altogether.

Rather more bracing – and less of a rip-off – was the guided Dickens Walk which is run by the Dickens Museum on afternoons. The guide and Dickens-phile, Mark Baster, first explained about the Dickens’s life at 48 Doughty Street. Charles moved there not only with his new wife Catherine, but with her younger sister Mary, who died soon thereafter in Dickens’s arms. Mary is credited with being the muse of the girl-saints (Little Nell, Little Dorrit), which recur in his fiction. The walk shifts both backwards and forwards from that point in Dickens’s life. We first moved backwards to Gray’s Inn, where the young Dickens was a law clerk and journalist (the cash books of Gray’s Inn for the late 1820s contain names such as Weller – promptly given by Dickens to Pickwick’s assistant). At this time he lived in a large redbrick building on High Holborn, Furnival’s Inn – now no longer in existence, along with every other London house in which he ever lived, apart from Doughty Street. From there we walked to Lincoln’s Inn – now so lovely, but where it appears in the opening of Bleak House, unforgettably, thus:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. […] The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

If there were ever a writer to make you glad that you live in London – and grateful that you don’t live in Victorian London – it is Dickens. From there we walked across Fleet Street to the Temple, where Pip and Herbert Pocket live in Garden Court on the very shore of the pre-Embankment Thames. When Pip tries to smuggle Magwitch out of England, he has only to step out of his chambers and into his boat. Thence we walked to the Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, where David Copperfield waits ‘to see the giants of Saint Dunstan’s strike upon the bells’, and where a visitation in the tower occurs in the second of the three Christmas Books. Then we visited Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street, where Darney and Carton dine in A Tale of Two Cities, and where Dickens had a favourite seat by the fireplace in the front room on the left. Finally we approached St Paul’s Cathedral, at which Joe the crossing sweeper in Bleak House gazes whilst eating his lunch:

there he sits, munching and gnawing, and looking up at the great cross on the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, glittering above a red-and-violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy’s face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city – so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach. There he sits, the sun going down, the river running fast, the crowd flowing by him in two streams – everything moving on to some purpose and to one end – until he is stirred up and told to ‘move on’ too.

There the tour finished. There were important parts of Dickens’s London which it had necessarily omitted: the prisons (the Marshalsea, Newgate, and Fleet); Tavistock House where Dickens wrote Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, and converted the schoolroom into ‘The Smallest Theatre in the World’; the Old Curiosity Shop on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, from which Little Nell flees; St. Luke’s Church, Chelsea, where Charles and Catherine were married in 1836; and Jacob’s Island, where Bill Sykes lives, is hunted to, and is hanged. Dickens was a keen walker, like many of his characters. We Dickens fans didn’t quite have the energy to cover all that territory in an afternoon.

My appetite whetted for Victorian tours, I tried out the tour of the Midland Grand Hotel – or the St. Pancras Marriott Renaissance London Hotel, a contemporary title as long and lofty as the building it denotes. There is enough of interest here to justify the ninety minutes you spend walking through it. You learn, for example, that the building’s bricks are red rather than the London-yellow of neighbouring King’s Cross, because they were brought from the Midlands by the Midland Railway Company, which created both the station and hotel. The station is on an East-West line with King’s Cross, Euston, Marylebone and Paddington Stations because planning restrictions prohibited station buildings south of the Euston Road. George Gilbert Scott – king and Stakhanovite of high Victorian architecture – won the competition to design the hotel, and did it lavishly, with a grand central staircase (used by the Spice Girls in their video 1996 Wannabe), gold leaf on the walls, and a fireplace in every room. But in 1935 it closed as a hotel, mainly because there were problems installing en suite bathrooms since the original, concrete floors were hard to run pipes through. The building became railway offices until the 1980s, when it was vacated and was nearly demolished.

Finally in 2004 it was decided to reopen it as a hotel. This was accomplished, with lavish and meticulous historical accuracy, by Harry Handelsman of the Manhattan Lift Corporation in 2011. The tour includes the corridor with the best suites of all; the grandest of these is named the Gilbert Scott. But it doesn’t include the sixty-eight private duplex apartments which now run along the roof of the building – nor Handelsman’s personal apartment in the central tower. I confess that his vast wealth, combined with his taste in sculpture which is evidenced throughout the hotel, gave him something of the aspect of a Bond villain in my imagination. The tower is clearly his lair. But there is no doubt that he has done London a huge favour by preserving one of its greatest Victorian buildings for the foreseeable future. Or until such time as Bond tracks him down.

The area in which the station stands is a great place to explore Victorian London. Last September a two-day Victorian festival called King’s Cross Journeys was held on Granary Square, just behind King’s Cross. This was made up of stalls, street theatre, fairground attractions, and the like. The organisers’ blurb described it thus:

Join King’s Cross as it explores its past and be plunged into a gritty Victorian experience. […] With everyone from chimney sweeps and Beadles to Clairvoyants in sideshow tents and street magicians on hand to immerse you in their world, you will learn about life amongst the freight hub and enjoy surprises and spectacles along the way.

I can’t say I learned a huge amount about Victorian life from it, nor that I felt particularly immersed – though some of my visual clichés of the Victorian entertainments, such as moustachioed gentlemen in stripy clothing performing acrobatic feats, were reinforced. I was a bit bewildered by the Caribbean food stall. Jerked chicken took rather longer to become part of British cuisine than its presence there suggested. But the festival was well-attended, and children – such a focus of Victorian sentiment and moral anxiety – seemed to particularly enjoy it. After all, the Victorians were good at entertaining. Victorian-themed street fairs became a vogue in England during the historicising 1980s, and the Rochester Dickens Festival now runs not once but twice a year.

But the question occurs: how many people would turn out to a Georgian Street fair? A Georgian Fair was held in Cockermouth, Cumbria, in 2005 – but that is the only one in the recent past of which I am aware. Six annual Swift Satire Festivals have been held in Trim, Ireland, but these are dedicated to satire in general, not to Swift’s in particular. No Georgian author has a regular festival dedicated to them.

We feel much closer to the Victorians than to their predecessors, in a way which feels in excess of their relative distance in time – especially given that school education makes us relatively familiar with Tudor and Stuart history and literature. Victorian London is remembered in lots of ways, as well as being physically visible pretty much whichever way you turn. The Victorian rooms in the intensely Victorian Victoria and Albert Museum have just been finely redeveloped. It’s now up to the fans and scholars of the Georgians to put their period on London’s map and in people’s minds. May the current exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed’ at the British Library be just a beginning of a developing trend, and may we Londoners learn to see further, past the Victorian acrobats, novels, and redbrick stations, to an understanding of the culture from which they all developed, and with which they have as many similarities, as well as differences, as exist between the Victorians and ourselves.

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Catherine Brown