NEW EXHIBITION: 'Dickens and his World'

30 May 2012

Dickens academicThe Bodleian Summer exhibition opens to the public this Saturday, 2 June. Celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, the exhibition illustrates the relationship between the fictional worlds Charles Dickens created in his novels and the historical reality in which he lived. 

Drawing on the Bodleian’s unparalleled collection of printed ephemera, the Dickens and his World exhibition depicts in a unique way the life and times in which the novels and stories of this great writer were set. 

On display will be playbills, advertisements, murder sheets, maps, panoramas, sheet music, playing cards and prints which will aim to recreate Dickens’ world and take the visitors on a journey back in his time. These items will be accompanied by quotations from Dickens’ novels, thus revealing how the historical reality of the Victorian times is mirrored in his writings.

There will be sections on Victorian London and its amusements; the coming of the railways; domestic entertainment; and school life for children. The exhibition will also look at the many stage adaptations that were often performed before the novels had completed their serialization and the plays Dickens produced and acted in, sometimes privately.

The exhibition makes the vibrant world of Dickens and his characters come alive by reproducing key extracts from the novels; these sit alongside a selection of the original book covers as they appeared weekly and monthly in the bookshops, their illustrations and all the paraphernalia of nineteenth-century advertising.

Examples of Exhibits:

  • the earliest surviving letter of Dickens, written to a schoolfellow when he was thirteen or fourteen and studying at the Wellington House Academy (on loan from Charles Dickens Museum) 
  • playbills for Nicholas Nickleby, 1839;  Martin Chuzzlewitt, c. 1844; Dombey and Son, 1848 
  • Dickens’s poem ‘The Ivy Green’ in The Pickwick Papers set to music by Henry Russell 
  • an illustration of the Staplehurst accident which occurred in June 1865. Dickens was lucky not to have been hurt in this accident and helped the injured to safety. He was travelling with Ellen Ternan so he had to keep his presence on the train quiet during the inquest. 
  • print of an interior scene from Madame Tussaud’s first permanent exhibition based at Baker Street (Dickens reinvented Madame Tussaud as Mrs Jarley in The Old Curiosity Shop) 
  • the renowned circus Astley’s visit in the same novel is illustrated by a portrait of the proprietor and prints of the performing horses 
  • panoramas and maps of London dating mid-19th century show us how rapidly London developed during Victorian times. We can also see Doughty Street where Charles Dickens and his wife had their first proper family or the Strand where the Nicklebys have lodgings;  or how Camden Town, where Mr Micawber (David Copperfield) lived, was partially built at the time. 
  • a miniature theatre with sheets for Oliver Twist from 1875 (Oliver Twist was the only one of Dickens’s novels that was adapted for miniature theatre) 
  • advertisement for ‘farewell readings’ by Dickens, 1870. This was his final tour before he died in June 1870. 

Clive Hurst, Head of Rare Books and exhibition curator said: ‘By using quotations from the novels to prompt the exhibits we hope to shed new light on the real world from which this ‘unique of talents’ (Carlyle) created his great fiction.’ 

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library is one of the most important collections of printed ephemera in the world and is a very rich source for social and printing historians.  Assembled by John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956), papyrologist, and Printer to the University, it contains c.1.5 million items.  Spanning from 1508 to 1939 (and beyond in some areas), the strengths of the Collection are in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Printed ‘ephemera’ (meaning ‘short lived things’) are pieces of textual or illustrative matter that are not intended to last―throwaway items which usually do not survive. Official documents may tell us about the big, important things, but ephemera can show us the smaller details: what people wore, what they ate, what they bought, and what they did in their spare time. Playbills, posters, handbills, advertisements, prints, scraps, grocers’ lists, song sheets, and broadsides―these were all part of daily life in Dickensian England.  

Dickens and His World

  • 2 June – 28 October 2012
  • Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library
    Old Schools Quad, Catte Street
  • Opening Hours
    Mon-Fri 9am – 5pm
    Sat 9am – 4.30pm
    Sun 11am – 5pm 

Buy the exhibition book

  • The Curious World of Dickens
    by Clive Hurst and Violet Moller, published by Bodleian Library Publishing in hardback featuring 90 colour illustrations at £15.99

Exhibition Activities 

    A series of four lectures delivered by Dickens scholars from Oxford and other universities. 
    Find out more>>
    The exhibition’s curator will talk about the ideas behind the exhibition and how the material was identified. 
    Find out more>>
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