Life in Tavistock House, the home of renowned writer Charles Dickens, runs according to a strict schedule. Dickens is a stickler for routine, which he claims is the secret to his productivity, and woe betide any person who comes between him and his work. This cold January morning in 1852 is no exception, and Dickens rises before the dawn, at seven o’clock in the morning, eager to get to work.
The Dickens family live in Tavistock House, a spacious residence in north London, not far from King’s Cross station. The property is part of a large house recently divided into three, and the Dickens family presently occupy the western wing. Dickens, his wife Catherine, and their eight living children had moved into the house just a few months previously, once the lease on their Regent’s Park residence at number 1, Devonshire Terrace had expired. 1851 had been a difficult year for the family; Catherine had suffered a nervous collapse, Dickens’ father had passed away, and their youngest daughter Dora had died suddenly at the age of just 8 months. Tavistock House represented a new beginning, and with (yet another) new baby on the way, the Dickens family are looking to the future.
Long before the family awakes, the maids have been about their daily tasks, and a warm fire burns in the bedrooms and the breakfast room. Dickens takes the newspaper and sits down to breakfast as the family gradually join him. The youngest children eat in the nursery, but Charles, Mary, and Kate sit down with their father. Charles is home from Eton, and eager to show his father what he has learned by taking a keen interest in the news of the day. Dickens was an affectionate father, and later his daughter Mary would fondly remember the interest he took in their daily activities. This was unusual in a time when Victorian parenting was generally distant and reserved, and the Dickens children all seemed to have maintained a close relationship with their father.
Breakfast in Victorian England is a robust affair, designed to fill the bellies of workers to last them through the long working day, and even though the Dickens family is very wealthy, they still eat a substantial morning meal. Dickens is a passionate foodie, a fact reflected in his writings, and he felt strongly that access to nutritious, filling meals should be available to everyone, whatever their income. As a twelve-year-old boy, Dickens had known hunger, and later in life, he would campaign for affordable, good quality food to be made available to the poor. Although he loved food, he was self-disciplined, and never ate to excess. Today, kedgeree is served in Tavistock House, a dish inspired by the British colonies in India, consisting of spiced rice with smoked haddock and egg. This dish is a favorite in many Victorian households, but today, the great writer himself seems distracted and picks listlessly at his dish. His mind is filled with ideas, and he is eager to get to work.
Dickens starts work at nine o’clock sharp when he retreats into his study and closes the door. He requires absolute silence for working, and must not be disturbed. The only exception to this rule is made for his daughter Mary, who was ill as a child and spent her convalescence on a couch in the corner of her father’s study, watching him work. The room is, at present, simply decorated, as the family has not been settled in the house for long, and there is still substantial work to be done. However, Dickens has ensured that his study, at least, is laid out in exactly the way he wants: he requires optimum conditions for working. The desk faces the window, allowing him to look outside and absorb the light of the day. The room is filled with fresh flowers, and on his desk, Dickens has a number of items designed to put his mind at ease and enable him to write productively. These include a gilt leaf with a rabbit perched on it and a bronze statuette of a man with several puppies. Many of these ornaments even accompany him when he travels, to ensure that he can replicate his ideal working space anywhere he goes.
Taking a deep breath, Dickens sets about his work. Today he is working on the manuscript for a nearly completed book, which will later become Bleak House. This is Dickens’ most complex work to date, featuring a twisting plot and several well-drawn characters. He is struggling with a passage near the end of the book, and for the first few hours of the morning makes little headway. At some moments he rises and paces up and down, and occasionally goes to the mirror in the corner of the room, contorting his face into different positions and grimaces as he strains to fully imagine and embody his characters. Finally, inspiration strikes, and he writes fluently.
At midday, he takes a brief break for luncheon, a simple meal of soup and cold meats. He eats quickly, mechanically, and excuses himself as he hurries back to the study to work. Now that he is in full flow, he is loath to stop writing, and he continues in the peaceful silence of his study. As he hears the clock chime two, he finally stops and puts down his pen and ink. After a slow start, he has managed to produce around two thousand words, a very respectable result, although on better days he could write even double that amount. He stretches and leans back in his chair. The sun is shining, although it is the cold, pale light of winter, and the crisp January weather is beckoning him outside. The day’s writing is done, and now it is time to get some fresh air.
Dickens is a prolific walker, and it is here on the streets of London that his imagination runs wild. He sets a fast pace and strides all over the city: there is no corner of London that he has not, at some point, explored. He drinks in the sights and the sounds of London life, from the elevated aristocratic surroundings of Regent’s Park to the grimy underworld of the East End docklands. As he walks, keenly observing everything around him, he develops new characters, stories and ideas, keeping a mental note of the faces and voices that he passes on the street. Walking is Dickens’ literary fuel, and it is this that provides his works with their characteristic style. He returns home invigorated, filled with energy and ideas, a radical transformation from the taciturn man who had sat silently at lunch just a few hours previously.
Returning to Tavistock House, Dickens washes and dresses for dinner. Although he could be described as a workaholic, in the evenings he knows how to relax and socialize. He rarely writes at night, and instead prefers to spend his time at leisure, entertaining friends, and relatives. Tonight the dinner guests include a young Wilkie Collins, an up and coming writer who had been introduced to Dickens the previous year. The two had formed a close friendship, and Dickens is developing into a mentor for the young man.
The mid-19th century represented a shift in middle-class eating habits, as the main meal of the day was pushed back from lunchtime to early evening. In Tavistock House, dinner is served at six o’clock. The children eat separately; a small supper of bread and milk, but the adults and their guests sit down to dinner in the dining room. Dinner at Tavistock House was served à la française, which meant that multiple dishes were placed on the table at the same time, often over containers of hot water to keep them warm. At one end of the table stands a tureen of oxtail soup, which Catherine, as hostess, is responsible for dispensing. The rest of the table includes two fish, some lamb cutlets, and other small dishes, and the table is lavishly decorated with a lace table runner and matching flowers. Once the guests have tried these dishes, they are taken away (known as the first remove) and replaced with a second course that includes plates of vegetables and potatoes, a joint of roast mutton, and some boiled turkey. After the guests have eaten their fill, the plates are removed and replaced with fruits, cheese and desserts, and another savory meat.
Catherine catches the eye of the other female guests, and the women leave the table to take tea in the drawing room. The men remain for some time, before Dickens and Collins head into the library for a glass of port, deep in conversation about their latest work. They are discussing the prospect of writing a play or novel together, and they remain engrossed with the idea as the hours pass and the night wears on. When the guests finally leave, Dickens pours a final glass of port and sits reading until midnight. He retires and heads for bed, his mind still buzzing with new ideas, characters and stories that will one day find themselves expressed in ink and paper, immortalized in Dickens’ classic works.