Putting the dough in doughty

Charles Dickens was the third child and first son of a sibship of eight. In 1836, he married Edinburgh born Catherine Hogarth, who was the eldest daughter in a family of ten children. In late March 1837 they moved to 48 Doughty Street, with his brother Fred and her sister Mary Hogarth.

The southern part of the street is a continuation of the short John Street. I am here at the house, ten minutes’ walk from the Curzon Bloomsbury, to visit the Charles Dickens Museum (which has its shop and offices at No 49).

The Spectator” magazine had its offices for many years at No 55. In 1853 it published an anonymous and unfavourable review of Dickens’s “Bleak House”, later revealed to be by the essayist George Brimley (who died four years later at the age of 37). The review was typical of the paper’s enduring contempt for him as a “popular ” writer, “amusing the idle hours of the greatest number of readers; not, we may hope, without improvement to their hearts, but certainly without profoundly affecting their intellects or deeply stirring their emotions.”.

In early May of that year, having lived at No 48 with the young married couple for a year, Kate’s 17 year old sister Mary died suddenly, in Charles’s arms, it is believed of heart failure or a stroke. The couple’s first two children, Charles and Mary were born at this address, and “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickleby” were written here. In December 1839, the family left Doughty St for No 1, Marylebone Terrace.

In 1842, Catherine’s fifteen year old sister Georgina joined the household. While Charles and Catherine toured the eastern United States from January to June, Georgy looked after their young children. (Charles and Catherine had ten children between 1837 and 1852. Their baby daughter Dora died at the age of eight months in April 1851.)

Charles’s father, John Dickens, died in March 1851. Charles leased Tavistock House, Bloomsbury from 1851-60.

(In passing: In September 1853, Charles toured Italy with the artist Augustus Egg. Augustus’s mother had become Ann Egg on marriage. Augustus was baptised at St James’s, Piccadilly, on 30 May 1816. With Dickens he set up the philanthropic organisation “The Guild of Literature and Art”.)

In 1856, Dickens bought Gad’s Hill Place, Rochester. He quarrelled with Catherine in 1858, Georgy took his side, and the couple separated in 1858 (the sisters remained on good terms.) Charles sent Catherine away to Tavistock House with her firstborn, Charles. Georgy remained with the family until Charles’s death in 1870. Catherine died nine years after him, while Georgina lived on until 1917.

So much for the bare facts. In 1871, John Forster, Charles’s most trusted friend, published his biography. Even Dickens’s own children had not realised how much of “David Copperfield ” (1850) was autobiographical. The public were startled to learn about his early years.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. The following year, his family moved to Wish St, where they lived until his father was posted back to London in 1815. In 1821, Charles began taking classes at an establishment next door to the family home. They were to be rudely curtailed.

His father’s financial affairs had been growing ever more parlous, and in 1824 John Dickens was arrested for an unpaid account at the baker’s amounting to £40 10s. On a Monday morning early in that February, two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles left his home in Bloomsbury to walk the three miles to the blacking factory where he was to work his first ten hour day. Another boy, Bob Fagin by name, showed him the ropes.

A matter of weeks later John Dickens was sent to the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea. John’s release later that year, following the death of his mother and the assurance of a legacy, left Charles free to return to education- though his own mother would have preferred him to have continued at the factory. Dickens told Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”

Charles once recommended as a remedy against suicide, in a letter to a sister, a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese, and a pipe of tobacco. 1851, the year in which he lost a baby daughter and his father John, saw the publication by his wife Kate, writing under a nom de plume, of a book which ran to five editions, comprising a selection of menus “for between two to eighteen persons”. It was entitled: “What Shall We Have For Dinner?”. An American food historian and curator at Harvard’s Botanical Museum, Susan M Rossi-Wilcox, carried out phenomenal research on Kate Dickens’s book, which she published in 2005 alongside the original text as “Dinner for Dickens “.

Charles was a famous host and raconteur, and during their time as a family at Tavistock House theatricals for children and grown-ups were continually being held. For the rehearsals as well as the performances, Kate was faced with the task of feeding hordes of performers and guests. Son Charley once wrote: “We played to an audience of ninety for three nights at home.”. The butcher himself questioned the meat order.

The guests included many distinguished persons: Jane Carlyle commented rather waspishly on “quantities of artificial flowers ” and “overloaded dessert”: “the very candles rose each out of an artificial rose! Good God!”. Jane was born fourteen years earlier than Catherine, nineteen miles east of Edinburgh.

In his days of servitude at Warren’s, Hungerford Stairs, The Strand, young Charles would have had ample opportunity to reflect on the resonance of the factory’s address. As Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”.

The day before his unexpected death in 1870, Charles Dickens sat in his grand new conservatory where he had fixed Chinese lanterns, smoking his cigar. Showing it off to his younger daughter, he remarked: “Well, Katie, now you see POSITIVELY the last improvement at Gad’s Hill.”.

“A book of verses underneath the bough

A flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness

And wilderness is paradise enow.”

Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation from the Farsi: “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám “.

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