Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inspiration at Home

I decided to take this week away from work to focus on the writing, as well as to recharge the batteries a bit for the year ahead. If the last one was anything to go by I'm going to need it; where does the time go? Before tucking into my own stories I spent yesterday learning more about the tales and life of Charles Dickens, at the Museum of London's exhibition "Dickens and London". Though it's more about the man and the city he inhabited, it reveals where his stories, characters and settings came from. It turns out the best inspiration can be just outside your own door.

I've always wanted to write stories based in far off places, whether they be in space, distant planets or in fantastical lands. Something about people and events we recognise happening in settings for outside our own experiences has always interested me. Dickens of course based his stories in the city he called home, though I think he exaggerated it and emphasised elements of the city in such a way as to make it unrecognisable to those living in it; especially those who lived a privileged life. But it resonates, and feels like an accurate echo of the city, bringing light to parts of it that we choose not to see. His writing still does that a hundred and fifty years on.

Charles Dicken's desk, above, was also displayed. You could see all the
spots he wore away on the desk and the chair.

The exhibit itself was very interesting, though small in scale. They have the sounds of carriages and "ye olde London" playing in the background, as you look at paintings of Charles Dickens, of the city itself, and of the people who inhabited it. They also have a few original manuscripts, including David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Bleak House, among others. These were of particular interest to me, as on one side you can see the handwritten version from the man himself, next to the printed draft, with annotations and corrections, as well as the final version. Dicken's handwriting is terrible, written on non-lined paper, so his sentences drift down to the right. His own editing is evident on every page, with large lines scrawled through sections, some words written over, and notes made above the already small writing. This excited me more than I can probably express; even one of the greatest writers of all time had awful handwriting AND made mistakes. Lots of them. For any would be writer it's a relief to know that even the greats aren't perfect (and in fact that's probably what made them so great). They also have replicas of the little serial "magazines" that people would have bought to read the next section of Dicken's story. They would be released a few chapters at a time, much like we watch serial TV shows today. And like TV, the interesting bits (historically speaking) are the adverts, revealing the beliefs and perspective of people back then. My favourite was one for a back straightening treatment for women, with suitable drawings of women with twisted spines. After all, how else would you get the corset on if you don't have a straight back?

The exhibit also shows the injustices and cruelty of Victorian Britain, which Dickens often expressed in his works. From the treatment of prisoners, to the plight of the poor, his passion for his subjects always comes through in his stories. The readers of Little Dorrit followed the serial publications avidly, even writing to Dickens themselves to beg him to spare Dorrit's life. Their pleas fell on deaf ears and the painful death of Dorrit went ahead, which caused much distress to the readers. Essentially, it was soap opera before soaps existed, with one key difference; Dicken's clearly hoped that his stories, which never shied away from the ugly side of life, would make a change to people's perceptions and possibly one day to the real life situation of people on the streets.

I can't claim to write stories nearly so relevant, so interesting, so effecting. But it was an inspiration to see how one man used his home city as inspiration and dedicated his passion of telling stories to making a difference.

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