Dickens, Antiquity and Literary Tourism

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Event Series Event Series: Lunchtime Lectures

Dickens, Antiquity and Literary Tourism

December 5, 2023 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Dickens, Antiquity and Literary Tourism

by Dr Lee Jackson

Charles Dickens was fascinated with old buildings, places and objects and we find them repeatedly in his fiction. From quaint coaching inns to ancient mansions, neglected old shops to peculiar relics, his works reflect an interest in the evocative appeal of antiquity. Thus the historic coaching inns of the Borough are ‘great rambling queer old places … with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories’. Yet Dickens also repeatedly satirizes those who fetishize or romanticize the past, e.g. Mr Pickwick’s comical misreading of a ‘Roman’ inscription at Cobham, which proves to be the idle scratching of a contemporary labourer.

This satirical impulse is striking – as if subtly criticising his own reliance on antiquity. Did he fear that his bravura descriptions of ‘old buildings and curious people’ (as Walter Bagehot put it) might eclipse the serious purpose of his writing? There are hints of this anxiety in his fiction. Editing the work of Bulwer-Lytton, he would also advise his fellow writer that ‘scenic appliances’ should be ‘subdued to the Piece, instead of the Piece being sacrificed to them’. But readers were very much interested in Dickens’s scenery – particularly locations in London – one reason why we see the flourishing of Dickensian literary tourism after his death.

Countless books, newspaper and magazine articles, magic lantern shows et al., directed the curious to explore the reality of ‘Dickens’s London’. Tourists, moreover, were encouraged to view this newly-charted ‘Dickensland’ through a historical lens, as an opportunity to glimpse ‘striking pictures of old London’. Dickensian tourism, however, exemplified the very dangers of dwelling upon the evocative past which had exercised the author during his lifetime. For ‘Dickens’s London’ was no longer simply an imaginary world, conjured by the novels, but a visual spectacle – sites/sights of picturesque antiquity – part of a nascent heritage metropolis, catering to the eager tourist – ‘Dickensland’. Were tourists worshipping at Dickens’s shrine or dishonouring his memory?

This event will be both in person at Burlington House and online. Please select the appropriate ticket below.

Attendance at Burlington House:

  • Open to anyone to join, Fellows, Affiliates and General Public.
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Attendance by Live Stream:

  • Open to anyone to join, Fellows, Affiliates and General Public.
  • The event will be live-streamed to YouTube here
  • The event will begin at 13.00 GMT.
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December 5, 2023
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Society of Antiquaries of London
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London, W1J 0BE United Kingdom
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