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How Charles Dickens used the power of science to transform lives

side in sketch of a man wearing spectacles with a big bushy beard

A rare depiction of Charles Dickens wearing spectacles, c.1860s. Sketch by Leslie Ward (1851-1922). Frederic Kitton archive. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

The Charles Dickens Museum, London explores the scientific side of the greatest author of the Victorian age

“Science has gone down into the mines and coal pits, and before the safety-lamp, the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared. … Sirens, mermaids, shining cities glittering at the bottom of the quiet seas, and in deep lakes, exist no longer; but, in their place, Science, their destroyer, shows us whole coasts of coral reef constructed by the labours of minute creatures; points to our own chalk cliffs and limestone rocks, as made of the dust of myriads of generations of infinitesimal beings that have passed away; reduces the very element of water into its constituent airs, and re-creates it at her pleasure”.

The young Charles Dickens penned these eloquent words for his review of  ‘The Poetry of Science’ in The Examiner in the 1830s, but they are just one of many forgotten instances from his long writing career that reveal his understanding of the power of science to transform lives and the human experience.

Dickens may have been the champion of the common man, the great romanticiser of humdrum Victorian lives who became the voice of a generation with pioneering works such as The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, but this exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in London shows a relatively unknown side to the great novelist, and one that was inextricably linked to his interest in science.

a photo of a figurine of a corpulent boy

Small Figurine of ‘the Fat Boy’ from The Pickwick Papers, c.1837. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

a photo of a Victorian era interiror with desk and bookshelves leaning against a red wall

Charles Dickens Museum, the study. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

According to the museum’s curator, Frankie Kubicki, Dickens’s interest in science developed as a practical and engaged obsession that was very much tied to his man of the people persona.

“For 150 years, it was thought that Charles Dickens was either not interested in science, or was downright hostile to it. But that’s because Dickens’s science was not the science of books or learned institutions,” she explains. “For Dickens, science mattered when it transformed lives: curing disease or cleaning streets, or opening up new vistas of wonder in a humdrum world.”

Kubicki says the exhibition “sets out to show this misunderstanding is a long-running travesty and that not only was Dickens passionately engaged in the sciences, he was one of the most influential scientific communicators of the Victorian age.”

The Museum at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury – the London townhouse where Dickens moved with his family in 1837 – holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dickens material, including the writing desk where he penned masterpieces such as Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities and this exhibition brings together his novels, journalism, letters and personal possessions to reveal how the great man used his unparalleled profile to articulate scientific understanding and fears that are still relevant today.

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Kaleidoscopes and other optical devices littered the desk of Dickens. Kaleidoscope, c1850. On loan from The College of Optometrists (British Optical Association Museum)

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Charles Dickens Travelling Bag, which accompanied him to Italy and an exploration of Vesuvius. c.1844. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

The novels take centre stage, with Dickens’ powerful descriptions of London articulating the dangers of of everything from air pollution to congested urban living, as in the opening of Bleak House:

“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

Dickens knew well the power of the elements and on display is his travelling bag, a gift from Alfred d’Orsay, reminding us of his trips to Italy, where, with Catherine and her sister Georgina, he climbed Mount Vesuvius. “We looked down into the flaming bowels of the mountain and came back again, alight in half-a-dozen places, and burnt from head to foot,” Dickens wrote. Volcanoes were highly popular subjects for scientific shows and lectures in the Victorian period and in 1853, Dickens also ascended Vesuvius with the renowned archaeologist Austen Henry Layard.

“The Fat Boy from The Pickwick Papers is no mere cruel caricature”

Visitors may also encounter a wax figurine of the Fat Boy from The Pickwick Papers, dating from 1837, but this is no mere cruel caricature but rather a demonstration of Dickens’s uncanny ability to describe previously undiagnosed medical conditions with such accuracy that they merited scientific investigation.

The Fat Boy “goes on errands fast asleep and snores as he waits at the table”, wrote Dickens in the novel published in 1836. One hundred and twenty years later, in 1956, scientists in The American Journal of Medicine identified ‘Pickwickian Syndrome’, or Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome, relating to overweight people with breathing difficulties and daytime drowsiness.

A playbill from the 1857 production of Animal Magnetism by Elizabeth Inchbald, which starred Dickens, also reveals Dickens’ interest and belief in mesmerism, sometimes known as magnetism, which was popularised in the nineteenth century by John Elliotson. The author was such a strong exponent of this practice that he would attempt to mesmerise people himself.

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‘Animal Magnetism’ playscript, Charles Dickens acting copy with annotations. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

a photo of a clay figurine of a fat boy beneath a glass display dome

Small Figurine of ‘the Fat Boy’ from The Pickwick Papers in bell jar, c.1837. © Charles Dickens Museum, London

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Close up of inscription to Charles Dickens in ‘Colossal Vestiges of the Older Nations’ by William Linton, 1862 (First Edition). © Charles Dickens Museum, London

Dickens also had a strong interest in optical science, evidenced by the telescope which once sat on his writing desk alongside magic lanterns, kaleidoscopes and stereoscopes. He even built his own mechanical optical illusions for his theatrical events and experimented with embossed type to reach visually-impaired readers. Scientific debate about new optical technologies and their capacities to deceive as well as to inform the eye is manifest in several of the novels and it is perhaps no coincidence that his most famous spectacle-wearer, Mr Pickwick, (who also carries a ‘telescope in his great-coat pocket’) creates a useless scientific Theory of Tittlebats.

Dickens’s own copy of William Linton’s Colossal Vestiges of the Older Nations, shows the close relations between the novelist and those in scientific circles as it was a gift from Marion Bell, widow of anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell.

“Dickens rubbed shoulders with Charles Darwin, chemist Jane Marcet and botanist Jane Loudan”

Through his writing, he acted as a mouthpiece for a wide range of scientists and medical professionals. On display are gifts and correspondence which reveal how he rubbed shoulders with great minds such as Charles Darwin, chemist Jane Marcet and botanist Jane Loudan.

Dickens own words even became part of medical practice; his descriptions of characters suffering from as yet unidentified conditions were so exactingly detailed that he inspired medics to explore new psychiatric and physical ailments, Florence Nightingale would prescribe his novels to injured soldiers to aid their recovery and his works were admired by anatomist Richard Owen and mathematician Ada Lovelace (who asked Dickens to read Dombey and Son to her on her deathbed).

He even helped to found the world’s first children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street.

a photo of an open book with dense two columned text

Dickens’s obituary, British Medical Journal, 1870. © Royal Society of Medicine

But it was Dickens’ ability to bridge the gap between the mystical world of science and the man on the street that was his greatest achievement. His life’s work was devoted to capturing reality and striving to improve it and a further reading of his novels reveals how he reached beyond the clotted mud of the London slums and peered into the scientific discoveries of the age for answers to society’s ills.

“I looked about the disorderly traces in the mud [of a policeman’s footprints as he darted about ‘catching nothing’ and dispersed a dreadful, menacing crowd], and I thought of the drops of rain and the footprints of an extinct creature, hoary ages upon ages old, that geologists have identified on the face of a cliff; and this speculation came over me: if this mud could petrify at this moment, and could lie concealed here for ten thousand years, I wonder whether the race of men then to be our successors on the earth could, from these or any marks, by the utmost force of the human intellect, unassisted by tradition, deduce such an astounding inference as the existence of a polished state of society that bore with the public savagery of neglected children in the streets of its capital city, and was proud of its power by sea and land, and never used its power to seize and save them!”

From ‘On an Amateur Beat’ in The Uncommercial Traveller.

Charles Dickens: Man of Science is at the Charles Dickens Museum London from May 24 – November 11 2018. 


Charles Dickens Museum

London, Greater London

Number 48 Doughty Street is the only remaining London home of eminent Victorian author Charles Dickens. Dickens described the terraced Georgian dwelling as 'my house in town' and resided here from 1837 until 1839 with his wife and young family. Two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary…

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