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What the Dickens! Museum reopens

December 11, 2012 12:10 am

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This row house where Charles Dickens lived with his young family is no longer a dusty and slightly neglected museum. tnc1211dickens1.jpg

A plaque on the exterior of the Charles Dickens Museum in London marks the structure's place in literary history. tnc1211dickens6.jpg

Visitors to the Charles Dickens Museum in London get to see rooms including this cheery blue dining room. tnc1211dickens5.jpg

The study in the Charles Dickens Museum in London features the author's desk, books.

BY JILL LAWLESS

BY JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

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 3 million pound ($4.8 million) makeover, it has been restored to bring the writer's world to life. The house reopened Monday, and its director says it aims to look "as if Dickens had just stepped out."

"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, after a revamp code-named--inevitably--"Great Expectations," the house is transformed.

Schweizer said, quoting that novel: "I have been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape."

Few authors remain as widely quoted, read and adapted as Dickens is 200 years after his birth. Characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Pip and Miss Havisham, Fagin and Oliver Twist, are known to millions.

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 48 Doughty Street 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 where he wrote "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Oliver Twist," going from jobbing journalist to rising author whose serialized stories were gobbled up by a growing fan base. He 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 cafe. There also is a temporary exhibition 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 of a proud young family man. Visitors can see the blue dining room where Dickens entertained, complete with original sideboard and a portrait of the 25-year-old author looking, it has to be said, pretty pleased with himself.

"It's rather Byronic," Schweizer said. "Not the Victorian sage with a beard that we think of."

Upstairs are the drawing room where Dickens moved guests to laughter and tears with readings from his works and the bedroom where his sister-in-law Mary died at 17, a tragedy that may have influenced the many death scenes in Dickens' novels.

Rooms are furnished with Dickens' own possessions--his writing desk and chair, wardrobe and shaving kit, copies of his books annotated in his handwriting.

"We're trying to make it feel like a home," Schweizer said. "As if Dickens had just stepped out."

The museum does not skip over 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.

That financial insecurity marked Dickens for life, and drove his workaholic quest. He wrote more than 20 books, had 10 children, traveled the world on lecture tours and campaigned for social change until his death from stroke in 1870 at 58.

Museum directors have been criticized for shutting the facility during most of the bicentenary of Dickens' birth--and London Olympics. It reopens in time for a Dickensian Christmas, with readings, performances of "A Christmas Carol," mulled wine, mince pies.

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. "There is a great hunger of Dickens, especially in these times" of economic austerity and uncertainty. As evidence, he held up a London newspaper proclaiming the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy under the headline "Kate Expectations."

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