Today marks 200 years of Dickens’s birth.
There are plenty of celebratory websites and blogs reflecting on Dickens’s life and works, and I’ve already written my piece on why Dickens remains so popular and important today. So by way of a celebratory birthday post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to focus on some of Dickens’s local connections.
Dickens visited Leamington Spa several times, including one visit in 1838 which included Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth. A letter from November 1st 1838 notes:
We found a roaring fire, an elegant dinner, a snug room, and capital beds all ready for us at Leamington, after a very agreeable (but very cold) ride. We started in a postchaise next morning for Kenilworth, with which we were both enraptured, and where I really think we MUST have lodgings next summer, please God that we are in good health and all goes well. You cannot conceive how delightful it is. To read among the ruins in fine weather would be perfect luxury. From here we went on to Warwick Castle, which is an ancient building, newly restored, and possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures; and thence to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born, and left our autographs and read those of other people and so forth.
Ten years later in the novel Dombey and Son we see a similar visit undertaken by the main characters: in one of the novel’s most well-known passages Mr Dombey travels on the train (the London-Birmingham railway line, as Leamington wasn’t connected to London by railway until 1852) and then stays in the town at “the Royal Hotel”; Mrs Skewton and her daughter stay “in lodgings that were fashionable enough, but rather limited in point of space and conveniences” (323). They visit the Pump-room several times (in the image below, you can see a sign pointing “to the Pump Room”), and make an excursion to Warwick which takes the party over a landscape of “smooth undulations, wind-mills, corn-grass, bean fields, wild-flowers, farmyards, hayricks” (423) before visiting the Castle where “grim knights and warriors looked scowling on them”. Having exhausted the Castle, they ride “to several admired points of view in the neighbourhood” to sketch the views, and then take “a stroll among the haunted ruins of Kenilworth”.
In a later visit to Leamington in 1858, Dickens notes his travel on the railway line between Leamington and Wolverhampton, saying
We came through a part of the Black Country that you. know., and it looked at its blackest. All the furnaces seemed in full blast, and all the coal-pits to be working
Less well known, however, is that Dickens also visited Coventry in 1857 and 1858; on the first visit he gave a reading of A Christmas Carol in the city and on the second visit in December 1858, he was thanked by the city with the presentation of a gold watch. In his speech to mark the occassion he stated:
the memory of to-night, and of your picturesque and interesting city, will never be absent from my mind, and I can never more hear the lightest mention of the name of Coventry without having inspired in my breast sentiments of unusual emotion and unusual attachment.