For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens. They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.
For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city. For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys. The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality. (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).
However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels. He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note. His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.
And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books). This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis. From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town. The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.
If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error. The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege. You can check it out here.