In London in the Time of Dickens, you’ll get the unique opportunity to experience the British capital through the eyes of a literary master whose work is inextricably tied to the city and its rich history. Throughout 12 lectures taught by Professor Lillian Nayder of Bates College, you’ll utilize Dickens’s life and work to tour the metropolis of London in a time of rapid transformation, uncovering the history of the city, while also witnessing the everyday experiences of Londoners from all walks of life.
London in the Time of Dickens
Lillian Nayder is the Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Bates College. She received her PhD in English from the University of Virginia. She wrote Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship and The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Her essays and book chapters on Dickens and other Victorian writers have appeared in dozens of journals and collections. She is a past president and trustee of the Dickens Society and served as the guest curator for an exhibit at the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
01: A Tale of Two Londons
Travel back to Victorian London and explore the extreme contrasts of the city that inspired Charles Dickens’s most beloved works. Examine how Dickens uses melodrama to paint the portrait of a city divided starkly between the rich and poor and ponder what has changed over the course of 150 years and what has remained remarkably the same.
02: Crime and Punishment, London Style
Novels like Oliver Twist show Dickens's empathy for the desperate and advocate for progressive reform, yet the novelist also had a strong authoritarian streak. As you will see in this lecture, this contradiction mirrors the debates over crime and policing that were unfolding in London at the time—and that we’re still wrangling with today.
03: Sexes and the City
The near-complete separation of public and private space was an idealized and deeply gendered division in Victorian culture. Consider the appeal of the feminized domestic space as opposed to the harsh public world, while also examining why the idyllic image of sheltered womanhood was simply not a reality for most wives and daughters in the London of Dickens's day.
04: Growing Up like Nell and Oliver
Many of Dickens’s protagonists are children. See how centering his novels on such vulnerable young characters and describing the world of London through their eyes allows him to engage his readers, sway their emotions, and add force to his social critiques. Follow the adventures of young characters in such works as Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Our Mutual Friend.
05: London’s Sublime Wilderness
Look back on the many ways the natural world was radically altered to suit human wishes and needs in 19th century London and consider what Dickens’s work says about the value of natural spaces in the urban sprawl. See where and how Dickens's characters find respite in nature and learn how it freed those actually living in the large and crowded city from some of its most oppressive and unhealthy effects, at least for a time.
06: London Fog
By the 1850s, Londoners used 13 million cubic feet of gas a day and 3 million tons of coal every year. The immense population also generated about 9.5 million cubic feet of refuse daily. Through Dickens’s rich descriptive language as well as the experiences of his characters, you’ll walk the muck-laden streets and peer through the “pea soup” fogs that threatened the health and safety—both literal and spiritual—of London’s denizens.
07: Engineering London
Focusing on such projects as the construction of the railways and the embankment of the Thames, consider the many ways in which the Victorians sought to improve their capital city. As you’ll see, their engineering projects and their social measures radically altered London—for better and for worse.
08: London Past, Present, and Future
History runs deep in London. Join Dickens as a time traveler in the city, exploring the many eras that London displays in its very stones and streets. Consider how Victorian “improvements” to the city endangered the material historical record of the city and see why history plays such a pivotal role in many of Dickens’s stories.
09: Pleasures and Pains
From the theaters of the West End to the gin palaces of Holborn, Victorian London offered a wide range of enjoyments and entertainment—but often at a high cost. Explore the many pleasures of the city and what Dickens represents as their dangers, as he voices the social concerns and imperial anxieties of his day.
10: The Heart of Empire
Seen as the heart of the empire, London testified to Britain’s greatness. Yet it also revealed the empire’s vulnerability to decline and fall. Examine the growth of the British Empire and see how England’s global reach and influence made itself known in Victorian London through goods, services, people, and even food. Then, examine the ways Dickens expressed the complex anxieties of imperial power in novels such as Dombey and Son and Great Expectations.
11: Legal London: Expense, Anxiety, Injustice
Dickens centered several of his novels in “legal London”—the region of the city devoted to the legal profession and courts of law. Why did the law and its repercussions interest him so much? Examine how the law worked in Victorian London and consider how it impacted Dickens himself as the son of a debtor, a shorthand reporter, and an author seeking copyright protection.
12: Dickens’s Own London
Dickens’s story is one of steep upward mobility. From humble beginnings, Dickens rose to become a wealthy and renowned literary figure. Close the course with a look at the most personal element of Dickens’s London experience: his many homes over the course of his life in the city. His changing addresses speak to his childhood hardships, his ambition, and his remarkable success as a writer.