Dickens - the scientist
An exhibition opening next month at the Charles Dickens Museum reveals an unexpected new dimension to the great Victorian novelist. Simon Tait reports
Charles Dickens had his enthusiasms: education, journalism, the theatre (his first love), social work (for ten years he ran a half-way house for fallen women) and prison reform, to name a few.
Main image. wax figure of The Fat Boy, the character from The Pickwick Papers whose obesity was observed by Dickens for its effects
But he has never been described as a scientist, until now and a new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum https://dickensmuseum.com, in his former home in Bloomsbury. It reveals that the novelist was “one of one of the most influential scientific communicators of the Victorian age”.
The exhibition, Charles Dickens: Man of Science which opens on May 24, reveals that the novelist had a keen interest in medicine, chemistry, geology, the earth’s energy, and the science of curing disease and public hygiene, all of which informed his work. “Science has gone down into the mines and coal pits” he wrote in a review in The Examinermagazine, “and before the safety-lamp, the Gnomes and Genii of those dark regions have disappeared”.
No 48 Doughty Street was Dickens’s home in the 1830s with his wife Catherine Hogarth and the oldest three of their, eventually, ten children. When he took the house for a rent of £80 a year he was an obscure parliamentary sketch writer, and within two years while still in his 20s he had become a celebrity, having written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in the house.
The museum that now occupies it has the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dickens material which it has been able to scan to discover the details of the writer’s involvement in scientific research and discovery. Other items to be on show are from The Royal Institution, The Royal Society of Medicine, The Geological Society and The College of Optometrists.
For most of his working life he was at the heart of Victorian intellectual society. He was a fellow club member with Charles Darwin, went on holiday with the chemist Jane Marcet, was friends with the botanist Jane Loudon, the sociologist Harriet Martineau and the geologist Roderick Murchison. He published the work of Michael Faraday and wrote an obituary for the fossilist Mary Anning. Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum was an admirer, and the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace asked him to read from Dombey and Son to her on her deathbed. Florence Nightingale prescribed Dickens to be read to sick and wounded soldiers.
As well as furnishing his own work with scientific interest, he was able to bring his friends’ work to the notice of a huge audience and marketplace. Through his journalism and campaigning he brought medical discoveries to public attention, and helped found the world’s first children’s hospital, Great Ormond Street. His detailed descriptions of as yet unspecified medical physical and psychological conditions led doctors to open new lines of research.
In his character portraits Dickens revealed an ecological insight decades ahead of his time. He described London’s geology and chemistry from analysis of bones discovered from digging for new sewers and railway lines, the fog produced by burning coal and the poison spread from bodies left in the streets.
He was editor of the magazine Household Words for 20 years, and in it published articles on, for instance, the new sciences of heat and energy, the ozone, the conserving of energies and creating of new ones, and even the vital spark of life’s beginning.
Photography was born in the late 1830s and Dickens was fascinated by magic lanterns, kaleidoscope’s and stereoscopes. He loved optical technology and kept a telescope on his desk. He even used optical illusions in the theatrical productions he put on.
So the exhibition will have a playbill from the 1857 production of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Animal Magnetism,starring Dickens, which explored mesmerism. The Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers led to Dickens’s own research into obesity and itseffects, such as day-time tiredness and breathing difficulty, and there will be a waxwork of the character.
“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” said the museum’s curator, Frankie Kubicki. “For Dickens, science mattered when it transformed lives, curing disease or cleaning streets, or opening up new vistas of wonder in a humdrum world.
“Our new 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.”
Charles Dickens: Man of Science is at the Dickens Museum from May 24 to November 11, supported by The Dickens Fellowship.