Saturday, 24 March 2007

What the Dickens

What I love about 'research' is that you never know where it will take you. At a concert in St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks – a well-known town in west Kent - I was talking of Charles Dickens' novels and mentioned that, although he was born in Plymouth, the county of Kent was very much 'Dickens Country'.

It was the Kentish places in which he lived that he used in his novels. When he was five his family moved to Chatham, on the north Kent coast; it was a naval base and appears in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. And it was from here that he and his father would often walk to Cobham Hall – a large country estate – recognizable in the Pickwick Papers.

Chatham abuts the ancient town of Rochester, which Dickens loved, and he mentions it in detail in David Copperfield. And it was at the nearby port of Gravesend, that Peggoty and David in the same novel say farewell to their friends sailing for Australia: in Great Expectations it is also from Gravesend that Pip and his accomplice try to smuggle the convict, Magwitch, out of England.

The marshes and churchyard at Coolings - a small village on the Kent coast just north of Rochester – were the setting for Pip's scary meeting with Magwitch and Restoration House - a medieval mansion in Rochester – was the inspiration for Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations.

From the time of his first novel Dickens liked to holiday in Broadstairs on the east coast of Kent: he may have claimed Kent as his county but the people of Broadstairs claimed Dickens as their man. Apparently it was a little old lady there that inspired the character Miss Betsey Trotwood - and her cottage the setting - in David Copperfield.

Before even 1900, the house in which Dickens stayed when he used Broadstairs as his "English Watering Place" was known as 'Dickens House'. And for the past 69 years there have been productions of his novels performed there every summer: known as the 'Dickens Festival', the townspeople of Broadstairs have a jolly time dressing up in Victorian costume to publicise it.

Dickens' first novel, Pickwick Papers, was published in instalments, as was that of his great friend Wilkie Collins. This is well known but, whilst I was checking on the facts mentioned above, I was surprised to learn that Collins' brother married Dickens' daughter, Kate.

Whilst she was married to this sickly – and apparently not too popular - character, Kate lived in London but after his death she married a much more inspiring character, the painter Charles Perugini (a friend of the great painter, Lord Leighton)and lived in Park Cottage, Sevenoaks! According to a very informed blog reader they lived in Sevenoaks from 1875 to 1893.

But guess what, when Perugini died in 1917 he was buried in St Nicholas churchyard! Kate moved back to London and when she died she too was buried there. Now that is what I call a result: if I'd known all that at the concert I'd have gone out to look for the gravestone by torchlight. Amazing where research can take you.


PS After Kate married Perugini she became a noted painter herself: Millais painted her as a bride dresssed - unusually - in a black dress, looking backwards over her shoulder. Just making sure there was no Woman in White following here perhaps.



Elaine SL said...

I spent a weekend in Broadstairs many years ago and the hotel I stayed in (whose name I now cannot remember) was the house where the Great Man wrote part of Nicholas Nickleby. I simply adore Charles Dickens and David Copperfield is one of my favourites. Have just found your blog and will visit again

Lucy said...

Thanks, Elaine. And thanks too to Uwe Steinhaeuser who emailed me to point out that I had mixed something up in this post. I had originally posted that Kate's first husband, Collins, was buried in Sevenoaks when in fact it was her second husband Perugini that is buried there.

I love to hear from readers but am a little shamefaced in this case to realise an error which I have now corrected: Uwe must take the credit.