Dickens and London

Dickens and Camden Town

Railways in London
by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872)

In Dombey and Son, Dickens described the building of the railway line that cut through Camden Town near Staggs’s Gardens, the home of Paul Dombey's wet nurse'The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre.  Traces of its course were visible on every side.  Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood.  Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill.  … Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable. ... In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’ 

But six years later, when the dying Paul wanted to see his old nurse, ‘there was no such place as Staggs’s Gardens.  It had vanished from the earth.  Where the old rotten summer-houses once had stood, palaces now reared their heads, and granite columns of gigantic girth opened a vista to the railway world beyond.  The miserable waste ground, where the refuse-matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone.  The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind; the new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and waggon-ruts, formed towns within themselves.    Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks.’

Explore Gloucester Crescent, where Dickens' wife Catherine lived when he separated from her, after 22 years of marriage and the birth of ten children.  He had fallen for Ellen Ternan, a young actress.  Although their eldest son Charley opted to live with his mother Catherine saw very little of her other children after the separation and was not allowed to attend the wedding of her daughter Kate in 1860.  

The Doré engraving illustrates the sex stereotyping that underpinned Dickens treatment of his wife. Pretty young  women were idealized, although they were confined to the domestic roles of caring for their families and the semi-domestic philanthropic role of caring for the weak and helpless more generally.  After the separation Dickens could not bear any of his friends to express anything other than whole hearted sympathy with his complaints against Catherine.  He ceased his long liaison with his illustrator  because Hablot Browne (Phiz) illustrated a magazine published by a friend he had quarreled with over the separation. See Dickens and Women for more about the stereotyped Victorian attitudes to women illustrated by Doré. 


Women in a childrens hospital

by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872)