On Dickens’s bookshelf
Today, on Charles Dickens’s two-hundredth birthday, and given my interest in creative workers’ workspaces, it’s time for a little distraction…
His study at Tavistock House was a large room with sliding doors which lead into the drawing room; Dickens liked to open these doors and thus, during the mornings given over to composition, walk up and down the whole length of the house. Pacing around as he contemplated the next sentence, the next word. And it was here, in his new study, that he began work on ‘Bleak House’. [Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990) page 637].
Tavistock House was a Georgian town house fronting Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. Dickens bought the lease in 1851, and ordered refurbishments which he energetically supervised. The decor in his study, like the other rooms, received his close attention. He had the sliding doors embellished with dummy bookshelves, and commissioned a book binder to produce a set of sham book spines. Here is a letter he wrote to the binder:
Dear Mr. Eeles,Dickens was pleased with the result, and wrote again to Mr Eeles a few weeks later I must thank you for the admirable manner in which you have done the book-backs in my room. I feel personally obliged to you, I assure you, for the interest you have taken in my whim, and the promptitude with which you have completely carried it out.
I send you the list I have made for the book-backs. I should like the “History of a Short Chancery Suit” to come at the bottom of one recess, and the “Catalogue of Statues of the Duke of Wellington” at the bottom of the other. If you should want more titles, and will let me know how many, I will send them to you. Faithfully yours.
LIST OF IMITATION BOOK-BACKS.
Tavistock House, 1851.
Five Minutes in China. 3 vols.
Forty Winks at the Pyramids. 2 vols.
Abernethy on the Constitution. 2 vols.
Mr. Green’s Overland Mail. 2 vols.
Captain Cook’s Life of Savage. 2 vols.
A Carpenter’s Bench of Bishops. 2 vols.
Toot’s Universal Letter-Writer. 2 vols.
Orson’s Art of Etiquette.
Downeaster’s Complete Calculator.
History of the Middling Ages. 6 vols.
Jonah’s Account of the Whale.
Captain Parry’s Virtues of Cold Tar.
Kant’s Ancient Humbugs. 10 vols.
Bowwowdom. A Poem.
The Quarrelly Review. 4 vols.
The Gunpowder Magazine. 4 vols.
Steele. By the Author of “Ion.”
The Art of Cutting the Teeth.
Matthew’s Nursery Songs. 2 vols.
Paxton’s Bloomers. 5 vols.
On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets.
Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing. 3 vols.
Heavyside’s Conversations with Nobody. 3 vols.
Commonplace Book of the Oldest Inhabitant. 2 vols.
Growler’s Gruffiology, with Appendix. 4 vols.
The Books of Moses and Sons. 2 vols.
Burke (of Edinburgh) on the Sublime and Beautiful. 2 vols.
King Henry the Eighth’s Evidences of Christianity. 5 vols.
Miss Biffin on Deportment.
Morrison’s Pills Progress. 2 vols.
Lady Godiva on the Horse.
Munchausen’s Modern Miracles. 4 vols.
Richardson’s Show of Dramatic Literature. 12 vols.
Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep. As many volumes as possible.
I am sorry that I don’t have a picture of the room, nor of the dummy bookshelves, so a beautiful picture of Dickens’s next study will have to do. In 1857 Dickens moved to Gads Hill Place, a country house at Rochester in Kent. There he wrote his last novels—A tale of two cities, Great expectations, and Our mutual friend. He died in the house, while working on his final unfinished novel The mystery of Edwin Drood.