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Great experimentations: Dickens’ secret love of science

An exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum puts the novelist’s interest in science under the microscope

26 July, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

Charles Dickens ‘used his periodical magazines to campaign against social scandals and to promote a vision of the best science, democratic, wondrous and capable of transforming people’s lives for the better’

HE is, of course, known as a literary genius whose novels are still read, filmed and televised worldwide, renowned too as a social critic of the poverty, slum housing and lack of education endured during the Victorian decades in which he lived.

Yet Charles Dickens’ reputation has eluded the fact that he was, too, a writer whose vivid description of diseases, for instance, and his exchange of correspondence with the likes of Michael Faraday, discoverer of electro-chemistry, has remained unrecognised since his death in 1870.

That omission has finally been rectified with a brilliant exhibition, Charles Dickens: Man of Science, at Holborn’s Dickens Museum, the house in Doughty Street where he once lived.

The inspiration for it has come thanks to a meeting between Dr Adelene Buckland, senior lecturer in 19th century literature at King’s College, London, and the museum’s curators Louisa Price and Frankie Kubicki, with the result that the academic became the guest co-curator of the Dickens exhibition.

Part of a playbill for Animal Magnetism, performed in 1851 – Charles Dickens, a believer in mesmerism or magnetism, played The Doctor

The remarkable event takes a journey through some of Dickens’ favourite sciences – geology, thermodynamics, chemistry and medicine – to reveal what made him such a great communicator and displays some of the artefacts, instruments and texts resulting from his passion for science.

They range from Faraday’s own candle which he used to demonstrate capillary action and the burning of oxygen and hydrogen to audiences at the Royal Institution and the bag Dickens took with him on European travels such as twice climbing Mount Vesuvius.

“Dickens didn’t have a laboratory or collect specimens, and he didn’t belong to learned scientific societies,” says Dr Buckland. “But he used his periodical magazines to campaign against social scandals and to promote a vision of the best science, democratic, wondrous and capable of transforming people’s lives for the better.

“Not only that, but he was one of the most well-connected men in Victorian England, the best known writer in the world, and a brilliant observationist with a talent for writing about urban nature and human bodies and the vital relationship between the two.”

One excellent example is Fat boy Joe, the messenger depicted in The Pickwick Papers as “always asleep… he goes on errands fast asleep and snores as he waits at table,” to the extent that it becomes a running joke. But fictional Joe, seen as an intriguing wax model in the exhibition, has resulted in a major breakthrough in sleep science, American doctors in 1956 observing similar symptoms in an obese poker player who fell asleep holding a winning hand. They named it “Pickwickian syndrome”, though nowadays it is known as obesity hypo-ventilation syndrome.

A small wax figurine of ‘the Fat Boy’ from The Pickwick Papers dating from around 1837

For Dr Buckland the exhibition has a fascinating personal link with the fact that she grew up in the Thanet area of Kent, where Dickens had his holiday home in Broadstairs.

Her English teacher at school inspired her love of Dickens after, aged 12, she received copies of A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth in her Christmas stocking, and went on to study Great Expectations in class.

“I remember being stunned by the plotting, the way that seemingly every tiny detail of the fictional world seemed to have a place in the grand machinery of the story,” she recalled.

So much of that came from Dickens’ own experience as the son of a debt-laden family. Indeed, as a boy, in 1823, he lived in a tiny house, since demolished, in Bayham Street, Camden Town, then a down-at-heel area noted for prostitution.

“I think part of the reason his interest in science has been neglected for so long was precisely because he was thought of primarily as a social campaigner,” Dr Buckland points out. “The emphasis on the social side of his campaigns obscured the newness of the scientific knowledge that went into them.

“More importantly, he acquired a reputation – even in his own lifetime – for being a brilliant writer, but someone who was too popular to be considered an intellectual.”

Hence the failure to admire the depth of his knowledge of the actual terrors of Victorian life, especially that of sick and dying children. His persistent campaigning resulted in the erection of the world’s first children’s hospital at Great Ormond Street.

Charles Dickens: Man of Science is at the Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX until November 11. See for details.


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