I’ve been reading a lot of Dickens recently, for one reason and another*. He’s a quintessential London author, precisely attuned to the social nuances of the capital. Like his friend Thackeray, he knew exactly what he was doing when he located a character in Russell Square or Holburn, and expected his audience to understand, too.
So it’s with a certain degree of sorrow that I’ve come to realise that Dickens thought of Bloomsbury as rather, well, funny. It was a short-hand for a comic setting, the Slough of its day. It represented the strenuously upwardly-mobile, with a little new money and a lot of social anxiety. The Victorian Bloomsbury Set were decidedly unfashionable and unsophisticated.
In his early Sketches by Boz, it’s the location for the disastrous Bloomsbury Christening, with much play made of the boisterous, unsophisticated nature of the guests, punctured by the gloom of the rich uncle’s doom-laden speech.
It’s a place too for boarding houses, with all the richly comic potential of bumptious landladies and troublesome guests. The Boarding House, also from Sketches by Boz, is the Bloomsbury setting for a comedy of manners that sees all the guests disappear in one fell swoop of matrimony, as the house’s four quiet ladies and four single gentlemen fall in love.
And even at the end of his career, Dickens couldn’t resist the lure of the formidable Bloomsbury landlady. Having snatched Rosa Bud from the malign tentacles of evil uncle Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he lands her with one of his funniest, most majestic landladies, The Billikin. Alas, Dickens’ death mid-novel means Rosa is stuck there forever, mediating over the dinner menu between the warring Mrs Billikin and Rosa’s companion Miss Twinkleton. Personally, I find this even more distressing than the unsolved mystery of what actually happened to Mr Drood.
It’s easy to forget that when Virginia and Vanessa first lived in Gordon Square, to be joined by their coterie of lovers, husbands, friends, writers, artists, dancers and, um, economists, they were setting up their artistic circle in one of the less fashionable districts of London.
But then I’ve been reading recently that the latest hotspot for artists is Peckham, previously best-known as the home of Del and Rodney, in Only Fools and Horses. Maybe the lesson of Dickens’ Bloomsbury is that, in the immortal words of Adam Ant, ridicule is nothing to be scared of. One man’s Slough is another man’s literary paradise.
*The 19th Century Bloomsbury Reading Group is due to study Dickens in Bloomsbury this week, in a library within the British Museum, which Dickens himself used. Also, Dickens is an inspiration/possibly a character in The Novel.