A look at the East Anglian locations Charles Dickens used in his stories
Charles Dickens was born in February 1812 and, in his lifetime as a journalist and author he visited East Anglia on many occasions – he reported an election in Ipswich and (apocryphally) a hanging at Norwich Castle.
He also used the region's locations in his work, notably Blundeston, the beach at Great Yarmouth and the Great White Horse hotel in Ipswich.
The literary references are secure because they are in his novels and also pretty safe are the well-recorded locations on Dickens's reading tour but there are question marks over some reported local sightings, for example Miss Havisham's maybe-Suffolk house in Great Expectations. What we know for certain is the author was a well-travelled man, both in the UK and abroad and I like to think that if he is rumoured to have visited somewhere, he probably did.
In David Copperfield, the eponynous narrator relates: 'I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or 'there by', as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father's eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard...'
The Blundeston website (blundeston.org.uk) tells us the places in the book are real but there is no hard and fast evidence that Dickens visited the village: 'We know from his letters that Dickens initially chose the village name for the novel after seeing it on a signpost during a trip to nearby Yarmouth. However, despite local legend, it is difficult to tell whether Dickens subsequently visited here, or stayed at Somerleyton Hall, in the neighbouring village.'
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It conjectures, however, that Dickens would surely have taken the opportunity to go to Blundeston being so nearby in Yarmouth. I agree, he surely did.
While he may have felt kindly about Blundeston, Dickens was not enamoured of the Great White Horse in Ipswich. Mr Pickwick reports: 'The Great White Horse is famous in the neighbourhood, in the same degree as a prize ox, or a county-paper-chronicled turnip, or unwieldy pig, for its enormous size. Never was such labyrinths of uncarpeted passages, such clusters of mouldy, ill-lighted rooms, such huge numbers of small dens for eating or sleeping in, beneath any one roof, as are collected together between the four walls of the Great White Horse at Ipswich.'
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Moreover, Dickens writes of Mr Pickwick's dreadful experience when he enters the wrong room: 'Mr. Pickwick almost fainted with horror and dismay. Standing before the dressing-glass was a middle-aged lady, in yellow curl-papers, busily engaged in brushing what ladies call their 'back-hair'.'
Dickens was in Suffolk in 1835 to report on a notoriously corrupt election at Sudbury and stayed in Bury St Edmunds... but was the Sudbury election the model for Pickwick Papers' Eatanswill (as seems more likely) or does Ipswich have this dubious honour?
GK Chesterton mentions it in his 1908 collection of essays All Things Considered: 'It seems there is a standing quarrel between Sudbury and Suffolk's county town of Ipswich as to which was the town described by Dickens in his celebrated sketch of an election. Each town proclaimed with passion it was Eatanswill. If each had proclaimed with passion it was not Eatanswill was I might be able to understand it.' Chesterton goes on to argue it was a satire on England, not on any one place.
Dickens is said to have attended the public execution of James Rush at Norwich Castle on April 21, 1849. Up to 20,000 people were reported to have witnessed the hanging of tenant farmer James Rush who was convicted of murder for shooting his landlord Isaac Jermy, of Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, to whom he owed a huge sum of money. Michael Diamond in his book Victorian Sensation, however, says Dickens did not attend the execution but visited the crime scene.
We do know for sure that Charles Dickens visited Great Yarmouth in 1849 - staying two days at the Royal Hotel on Waterloo Road. It was in the seaside town that Peggoty's house on the beach was to be found and David Copperfield recalls his first sight of the boat-cum-house.
''Yon's our house, Mas'r Davy!'
I looked in all directions, as far as I could stare over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could make out. There was a black barge, or some kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of habitation that was visible to me.'
Dickens could be harsh. He was not a fan of Chelmsford. He wrote: 'If any one were to ask me what, in my opinion, was the dullest and most stupid spot on the face of the Earth, I should decidedly say Chelmsford.'
Just had a bad day, I expect... maybe his train was delayed.
There was another bad day in Norwich. On the author's reading tour in 1861, he did two nights in the city and, in a letter, he wrote of his first night: 'We had not a good hall and they were a very lumpish audience indeed.'
What with this and Dickens' poor opinion of the Great White Horse in Ipswich, it seems the three county capitals had little to commend them to the piercingly critical observations of (arguably) our greatest 19th century author.