Charles Dickens’ fantastical talents deliver a massive slap in the face for most copywriters, editors, content marketers, dramatists, journalists and authors. How could one man deliver 20,000+ high quality words a month, shift huge volumes of books, promote important social causes and still find time to walk an average of 10 miles a day around London? Kathryn and Nick have been battling jealousy of Dickens for years and eventually decide to walk in his footsteps in a last ditch attempt to see if anything rubs off…
It was a blisteringly hot day in London. The air shimmered with heat and the horrors of the tube made the disgusting feeling of flesh-sticking-to-clothes ten million times worse. It was a Monday, so most of London was currently trapped in the awfulness of baking offices. Yet outside Russell Square, behind the sweaty temperatures, everything was incredibly peaceful… and following the signs pointing to Charles Dickens’ house on Doughty Street you could have been nipping back 200 years.
These were roads Mr Dickens tramped when he took full residency here, between 1837 and 1839, at just 25 years old. Our jealousy begins to take hold outside his massive, desperately impressive house. It was while living here that Dickens successfully broke through to the masses and made serious steps to becoming one of the most prolific writers of all time. It was here that he perfected his model of serialisation and audience analysis that propelled him to the big time; methods which are still used as a benchmark by writers, film makers and television producers today. It was at this address that, through his extensive range of journalism and proclivity for self-promotion, he firmly established himself as the first content marketer… and threw out a legacy that few professionals with any kind of writing job can sniff at. We step through the huge green front door…
Once inside, the house on Doughty Street isn’t what you imagine. It may stretch over five floors and stand on one of those majestic tree-lined London streets with row upon row of elegant houses, which are so large they almost make you lose perspective – but on the inside it almost feels small. Well, not small, that is an exaggeration, but the entrance could belong to any number of places. The rooms aren’t huge or palatial and actually feel rather ordinary, enclosed and Georgian. In fact, the overall impact isn’t too dissimilar from the kind of old houses you find converted into flats across the capital. Sure, Dickens had the whole lot – but once you cram in a wife, servants and children, the place would certainly feel a bit cramped. Could this be a smote for jealousy?
No, this minor incredibly spun out victory doesn’t help at all. In these four walls Dickens achieved what many have struggled to do before and since… he truly brought events to life. And by using leap-off-the-page characterisation and incredible storytelling he even made a difference promoting wider social causes. The skills were incredible. His character development and depth were borne from his abilities as both an actor and impressionist. In fact, the writer would routinely act out each part to himself, walking through every emotional response and fully inhabiting each and every character; which when you think about it, also makes him an accomplished practitioner of method acting, 50 years before Stanislavski invented it.
The kind of jealousy this type of talent generates is hard to counter. Maybe some of the difficulties modern readers face in sticking out the bizarrely long sentences and unpacking the meaning while learning to appreciate a confusingly longwinded approach to storytelling could act as some kind of pill sweetener? Unfortunately it seems unlikely, because those who persevere are introduced into a world of colours, smells and sounds. A world where the job functions may not be the same as today… but the characters are truly alive and kicking. There is no getting away from the fact that the man was absolutely brilliant.
Yet as we wander round his former home it is hard to track down the real Dickens in this space. The dining room on the ground floor overlooks the street and is dominated by a table, but no amount of piped-in clinking brings you any closer to the great man. These are just rooms and can’t shout out Dickens’ genius; a genius which collided with his greatest character flaw… his 100% emotional engagement. Dickens was so entrenched in his own largely fictional self-narrative, that when he eventually abandoned his wife and mother of his ten children for an 18-year old actress, he managed to convince himself it was his wife’s fault. The man was such a great actor and storyteller, he even had himself fooled.
Up in the eves of the house the curators have attempted to lay the emotion on as thick as possible and help us feel Dickens’ pain. Here the former nursery has been bisected with the original bars of Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ father was incarcerated, ruining his childhood. In the same space are jars from the blacking factory where he was sent to work pasting labels… and the window he apparently gazed out of as an unhappy 11-year-old in Camden Town. This museum has pulled out all the stops to give the house an evocative feel, but unfortunately it just feels a bit odd.
The only room which could set your mind spinning is the “death room”. This features Dickens’ own will and the original bed, in the original room where his beloved 17-year old sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died. This death caused an obsessive fault line to run through Dickens’ work. It cast a dark shadow through his marriage and caused him to miss the only deadline of his professional career. The bed takes up most of the room and Dickens’ line at the time was: “Thank God. She died in my arms and the very last words she whispered were of me.” This may be a massively arrogant comment, but standing in the cramped space, gazing at the pink bedspread you can picture the scene… and see the setting for long dead Dickens’ most traumatic moment.
Back outside on Doughty Street the tree-lined road was as tranquil and impervious as ever and we didn’t really feel any closer to Dickens, nor any nearer to getting over our crippling jealousy. Strolling right and up the road the pavements were starting to become crowded. Walking South towards the river, hot London was beginning to crawl with people. There were girls in the latest season Summer dresses, with beautiful tans and styled city hair clinging to their naked necks, men in suits scrambling out of offices, whose white shirts were losing crispness by the second… and general hoards clambering into the air-conditioned bars and pubs in a desperate attempt to shake off the heat.
Crossing over Blackfriars Bridge we wandered towards Sea Containers House, the building we used to work at, which is in the process of being pulled down. As we hit the South Bank, the tourists began to appear in floods. Making our way over Hungerford Bridge, up along Villiers Passage, right past Trafalgar Square, through the Mall and then into the cooling grass of Green then Hyde Park, the tourists continued to flow in droves. These were the true footsteps of Dickens; a man who routinely walked across the city to see, taste and smell Victorian London at close hand. He knew the nuances, observed real people at work… and empathised with the poverty he had been catapulted into in his early life.
In our Tesco Value way we’ve been stalking Dickens for years. For six months between October 2008 and April 2009 we serialised our own novel online, twice weekly in 57 episodes. In this we attempted to engage an audience by spamming libraries, universities and radio stations; hacking out a following through Gumtree adverts, popular blog sites and social media. We powered forth with our tales of Greg Goode, a wealthy retiree living in France, who was obsessed with stemming the tide of sham-culture… and promoting the benefits of fine cheeses. The marketing wasn’t too bad… but our writing was the victim of our obsessive – and with hindsight – rather rubbish over-planning. Now we know, like a massive slap in the face, that we should have taken more notice of the methods of the man who did, in fact, have all the answers.
Walking West away from Dickens our jealousy continued to grow. By the time we had sloped back to Chiswick, the ridiculous heat had combined with our irrational envy to form a towering, draining beast. We were, wet, tired and in definite need of refreshment. Stopping for beers outside The Ship, we punished ourselves further with the beautiful benefits of hindsight, distance… and five more years of experience. Why on earth were we so chuffed by our day by day spreadsheet and 42-page structure document? Mr Dickens certainly never had one, so why would it help a couple of oiks like us? How in the name of goodness were we so naively confident in our tight, over-written episodic structure plan, complete with predetermined intro and upsell for the whole book? And how – beyond how – did we manage to be so smug about our perfect plotting and neat way of doing things… when Mr Dickens never bothered? Because in the midst of our swapping, editing and oh-so-thought-out two-man plan, we missed one core thing… the structure didn’t work and the story failed to breathe. The last ten months editing our 100,000 words of slick, interestingly premised, but ultimately empty manuscript has taught us the hard way about the glaring foolishness of our approach. Mr Dickens, we really wish we’d heeded you earlier…
Once Dickens is in your head; once you’re tracking him, stalking him and generally tailing some long dead literary gent… it is hard to get shot of him. Not just because his characters are everywhere, nor because nearly 150 years after his death his stories are so readily adapted that Christmas isn’t Christmas without some new TV version… but because if you have any kind of writing ambition at all, what starts as mild jealousy will almost certainly build into a great raging inferno.
The talent makes you gasp. This was a man turning out huge volumes of high quality copy month after month without fail. He was a chap who could direct huge, diverse audiences to laugh and cry along with him. He was an individual who would utilise his incredible skills to show the social injustices of the day, and to cap it all he would act out his whole cast of incredible characters – on his own – during mesmerising public performances. There is no escaping the jealousy. The only conceivable antidote is to heed the great master when you can and desperately, sadly – pathetically – try to learn something.