Dickens and his World

This exhibition illustrates the relationship between the fictional worlds that Charles Dickens created in his novels and the historical reality in which he lived. He depicted the social realities of his time with what Henry James noted as his ‘solidity of specification,’ an extraordinary clarity and particularity. The actualities of life, especially life in London - the setting for almost all his fiction - were of singular importance to him. When we read Dickens we experience Victorian life.

The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library is an unparalleled resource for ‘illustrating’ the 19th century. 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.

The exhibition aims to recreate Dickens’s world through these ephemeral items, taking visitors on a journey back to his time with themes such as Victorian London and its amusements, the coming of the railways, domestic entertainment and children’s school life.

A number of Dickens's works have been recorded by the Libraries, bringing London to life [Note: If the recording doesn't play automatically, you may need to download a media player]:

'I was a witness...'

Dickens's letter to The Times having joined the thousands of spectators outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol to see the hanging of the Mannings, 13 November 1849
Read by Clive Hurst, Rare Books
» Play (4 minutes; 1.61 MB)

Mrs Nickleby is courted by the Gentleman Next Door

(Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 41)
Read by Jennifer Varallo, Conservation & Collection Care
» Play (4 minutes, 2 seconds; 1.61 MB)

The railway comes to Camden Town

(Dombey and Son, Chapter 6) 
Read by Clive Hurst, Rare Books
» Play  (2 minutes, 19 seconds; 949 KB)

Mr and Mrs Vardon have lunch at the Maypole Inn

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 19)
Read by Clive Hurst, Rare Books
» Play (2 minutes, 58 seconds; 1.18 MB)

London! The arrival of Nicholas Nickleby

(Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 32)
Read by Simon Bailey, Oxford University Archives
» Play (2 minutes, 41 seconds; 1.07 MB)

'Fog everywhere...'

(Bleak House, Chapter 1)
Read by Simon Bailey, Oxford University Archives
» Play (3 minutes, 13 seconds; 1.29 MB)

Sam Weller, the 'boot' at the White Hart Inn and Mr Jingle, a charmer who is trying to elope with Miss Wardle for her money

(Pickwick Papers, Chapter 10)
Read by Simon Bailey, Oxford University Archives
» Play (5 minutes, 31 seconds; 2.2 MB) 

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