Connecting to Dickens – Desk vs. ManuscriptMay 9, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Exhibitions
Having looked at William Raban’s film Nightwalks last week, PhD student, Joanna Robinson takes a closer look at two of the key objects currently on display in our Dickens and London exhibition at the Museum of London. Joanna is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.
Tonight, in the blue corner – a real heavyweight on loan from a private collector – Dickens’s desk from Gad’s Hill Place! Aaand in the red corner – on loan from the V&A, and complete with annotations – the manuscript of Bleak House! Both contenders promise to pack a punch with the public… or do they? Perhaps the first question we should ask is can you have an exhibition on a well known literary figure without featuring these kind of artefacts? Dickens’ true heritage is his writing, yet how do you begin to structure an exhibition around something that is so intangible and subjective? In a way, desks and manuscripts seem to provide concrete proof of Dickens’ worth, and so justify his place in the canon and the existence of the exhibition itself. Yet even though they are clearly an expected facet of any display of this sort, it is difficult to know what it is they actually say about Dickens other than, “oh yes, he must have written something then.”
Nevertheless, so many of the people I speak to on their way out of the exhibition mention the desk in particular as their favourite display. The desk seems to give some people the feeling of a personal, even spiritual, connection to Dickens, and they see the desk as providing an insight into his writing process. Being a literature student, it came as a great surprise to me that the desk seemed to win round one against the manuscript – I certainly spent more time pouring over the famous opening from Bleak House, defaced by Dickens’s squiggly annotations, than gazing at the desk. I don’t mean to suggest that people weren’t impressed by the manuscript, yet the desk certainly seemed to have more impact. Of course, this might have something to do with how the display has been arranged. The desk is on a raised platform, under a spotlight, while the manuscript rests in an unobtrusive case along the back wall. If the exhibition were Camden Market, the desk would be a brightly coloured dress hung on the outside of a stall, which makes you stop even though you really don’t need a dress. Whereas the manuscript would be the great second hand book stall at the back of the Stables.
However, the responses from the public made me wonder whether I was missing something by thinking, “it’s a nice desk – but it is just a desk.” I am tempted to reach for Walter Benjamin as I try to understand its power over the imagination. Perhaps its literary associations have created an aura around it that gives it a palpable sense of uniqueness. One could claim that the desk has more impact because it is not reproducible, whereas Dickens’ words (even samples of his plans and annotations, if you get a good edition) are constantly replicated. Yet I am inclined to believe that its appeal may be even simpler than this. When Victorians emigrated they would take souvenirs to remind them of loved ones, finding a tactile comfort in these objects. The souvenir would somehow lessen their acute awareness of a human-shaped void even though they knew that they would probably never see their loved one again. The desk seems, to me, to constitute a kind of literary souvenir, and similarly provides a physical link between us and someone who is completely out of reach.
I do not mean to conclude that, after all, the desk should come out on top in this contest. Personally, I think the result is a tie. But it is interesting to see how many people yearn for a sense of connection to Dickens, which reading his work alone cannot satisfy. Not only does this reveal, if more proof were needed, the public demand for exhibitions like Dickens and London, but also how potent the Victorian souvenir culture still is.