Dickens’s Bookshelves

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What I’ve got here is one of the objects
from our exhibition Charles Dickens Man of Science – Colossal Vestiges of the Older
Nations by the artist William Linton and it’s a presentation copy given to Charles
Dickens and it says Charles Dickens Esquire with the author’s compliments. This book
was written by an artist and it’s about Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, a wide variety of ancient monuments and it seems at first glance to simply be an
artistic book but as you read it it takes in geology, archaeology,
evolutionary science, mechanical sciences and what it shows us is that if we’re
looking on Dickens’s bookshelves for scientific books we need to be
open-minded about what they might be they might include books that look to us
like artistic books but in the Victorian period covered a wide range of subjects. This is very typical of publishing in the 19th century and it opens up Dickens’s bookshelves to a much wider range of scientific interests than he’s been
credited with. He was also friends with a wide variety of scientific figures of
his day and this isn’t always captured on his bookshelves. He might have owned
books by Faraday or by Charles Darwin and he certainly did read many of those
books but he also had friendships that aren’t captured on the bookshelves and
that reveal a much greater interest or depth of interest in science than he’s
often been credited with. So just to take a few examples Dickens was friends with
Richard Owen who was the president of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal
College of Surgeons and who later set up the Museum of Natural History Dickens in
fact helped publicise his aim for a National Museum of Natural History by
publishing ideas about it in his journal All the Year Round. He was also friends
with the mathematician Ada Lovelace and he read at her request passages of
Dombey and Son to her on her deathbed. They may have debated on holiday in
Brighton their visions for a poetical science that would capture the
imagination and produce visionary results that might transform people’s
lives. He knew Jane Marseilles the most widely
published chemist of the period and he was read by
many leading men and women of science including Charles Darwin. Dickens’s science is interesting because it’s not just about what he read it’s also about
what he did so for instance in 1853 Dickens climbed Vesuvius with the
archaeologist Austen Henry Layard. There they may have discussed archaeological
remains because Layard was one of the most well known archaeologists of the
period. Dickens also attended soirees at the homes of famous men and women of
science like Charles Babbage who frequently exhibited his Difference
Engine. What this means I think is that if we want to really capture and
understand Dickens as a man of science we need to be prepared not only to look
on his bookshelves but also to think of this kinds of science that men and women did in the Victorian period – going out on geological fieldwork, climbing Vesuvius,
debating things at dinner parties, attending scientific shows and
spectacles. Everywhere we look when we think of science in this way we can find
Dickens there.

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