Charles Dickens in Bath
On the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, in 1870, we take a stroll around Bath to the buildings and streets he visited and wrote about. Why not start by admiring his portrait, which hangs in the corridor just inside the Pump Room?
The great Victorian novelist came to Bath on numerous occasions and the people he met in the city inspired some of his characters, including the great Mr Pickwick himself, who was based on Moses Pickwick, the landlord of the White Hart Inn, which stood opposite the Pump Room.
Dickens first came to Bath when he was a young parliamentary reporter, in the city to report on an important speech. He stayed at The Saracen’s Head, which is still a pub today and can be found in Broad Street.
Modern visitors strolling up to the pretty St James’ Square will find a bronze plaque on No. 35, erected in 1903 to mark the home of artist Walter Savage Landor, who was a friend of Dickens and used to entertain the writer when he was in Bath. The plaque which says Dickens lived here is not accurate – we have no evidence that he even stayed the night here. But we do know that Dickens stayed at the York House Hotel in George Street, which is now a Travelodge hotel.
In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens has Mr Pickwick stay at The White Hart Inn, while his servant Sam Weller arranged a ‘leg o’mutton swarry’ (a corruption of the word soiree) with other footmen, a lively evening of eating and drinking. From the description of the room they met, just across from the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, it may be that they were on the site, or very near, of the pub which is now named Sam Wellers after the fictional character. Mr Pickwick and Sam also tasted the famous spring water of Bath at the Pump Room. Referring to its metallic taste, Sam remarked that it tasted like ‘warm flat irons’.
The Assembly Rooms were described in The Pickwick Papers: ‘In the ball-room, the long card-room, the octagonal card-room, the staircases, and the passages, the hum of many voices, and the sound of many feet, were perfectly bewildering. Dresses rustled, feathers waved, lights shone, and jewels sparkled.’ Dickens knew the Assembly Rooms well, having given readings to his fans here in 1860.
But Charles Dickens’ fondness for Bath soured after an evening at the Assembly Rooms. His friend, the politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written a play, Not As Bad As We Seem, which Dickens had helped him edit. The Bath audience gave it a very frosty response and Dickens took it as a slight against him. Since Bulwer-Lytton has gone down in history as the man who wrote the much-mocked cliché, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, it may well have been a lousy play. At any rate from this event Dickens turned against Bath and Bathonians.
On the 200th anniversary of his birth, in 2012, Bath Literature Festival held an evening at the Pump Room with reading from his work, including his spine-chilling ghost story, The Signal Man.
Want to know more about Dickens?
Claire Tomalin wrote Charles Dickens: A Life in 2011, said to be the definitive biography of the great Victorian novelist and which gives an in-depth account of the man as well as his work. You can hear Claire speak about Charles Dickens at the Assembly Rooms in November at The Bath Festival Weekend. Find out more
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