In an 1850 All the Year Round article, Charles Dickens writes about his visit to the Royal Polytechnic Institution as a young boy. He recalls how scientific lectures and exhibitions on display were both entertaining and accessible – an experience that opened up new vistas of knowledge:
‘There was an indefinable feeling as if it were not real, out-and-out, holiday place: as if our education were in some way going on whenever we were there. Instruction, we felt, lurked behind amusement, and it was impossible to forecast, from the programme of the entertainments, exactly at what point the baleful genius of mental improvement might be expected to claim its victim. There were diverting objects to look at, doubtless, but even machinery in motion – a charming object always to any boy of a well-regulated mind – can be turned to an evil educational account.’
In his account of the Polytechnic, Dickens reveals the wonders of science: its ability to both amuse and educate the public was important to the author and he continuously worked to engage and communicate the progresses of science in the nineteenth century. This under-appreciated aspect of Dickens’s career forms the subject of the newly opened exhibition at the Dickens Museum ‘Charles Dickens: Man of Science’ which explores and reassesses Dickens’s role in engaging with science in diverse and nuanced ways. Dr. Adelene Buckland, senior lecturer of literature and science in the nineteenth century here at King’s and curator of the exhibition offers some helpful historical context:
‘Dickens was in a unique position because science was developing rapidly in the Victorian period. He was writing in a period in which science was rapidly transforming and in which it hadn’t quite become separated yet from the arts. As a famous writer with such great global reach ,he was able to help people publicise their ideas, to campaign on behalf of science and sometimes to criticise the things about science that he didn’t like.’ (From the interview, ‘Human Consciousness: Could a Brain in a Dish become Sentient’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 26 April, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09zt3n5).
The collections showcasing Dickens’s writing, belongings and objects relate to his scientific interests. These include first editions, journals, notes and letters that not only reveal Dickens as an enthusiast of science, but as a key communicator of its knowledge in the Victorian period. In the process, these exhibits illustrate how the relationship between Dickens and science often proved to be symbiotic. For example, besides promoting the scientific work demonstrated in the Polytechnic in his periodicals, Dickens’s story “The Haunted Man” was used at the Institution as part of the illusionist John Henry Pepper’s popular demonstrations of staged optical illusions. Here at Doughty Street, viewers will be able to engage with a recreation of Pepper’s Ghost. This replica has quickly become one of the most exciting hands-on exhibits allowing viewers to get a sense of how accessible these demonstrations were in the nineteenth century. Dr. Pete Oford, lecturer in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, echoes this sentiment as he recalls his visit to the exhibition: ‘the real showstopper is the Pepper’s Ghost that visitors are able to try – a truly memorable and fun experience!’
On display along the staircase of the exhibition are advertisements picked out from Dickens’s novels and periodicals featuring news on the latest scientific inventions of the Victorian age such as new telescope models, cures for hair loss and chemistry equipment. These original collections shed light on the creative production of scientific advertisements; alongside the cultural developments of the nineteenth century, they offer critical insight into the history of Dickens’s role as a communicator of science.
The exhibition is categorised into four main themes: Medicine, Forces and Energy, The Earth, and Vision charting the multifarious ways in which Dickens responded to each. Importantly, through correspondence and excerpts from his novels, they demonstrate retrospectively how these links were forged by his connections with eminent scientific professionals during the period, some of which included Sir Richard Owen, Jane Marcet, Jane Loudon, Marry Anning and Michael Faraday.
‘While the academic discussion of Dickens and Science is growing’, said Oford, ‘it remains an unknown area of the general public, and this exhibition does a great job in contextualising Dickens within the science and technology of his time.’
Subhashini Robert William is a first-year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London. She is also a research assistant for the Charles Dickens: Man of Science project. The exhibition runs until 11 November 2018 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. More details can be found here.