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Does the spirit of Charles Dickens live on in his furniture?

8 August 2018

At the end of July, the UK Minister for Arts, Heritage, and Tourism, Michael Ellis, placed a temporary bar on the export of a William IV mahogany table. According to an accompanying press release, the table, made around 1835, has eight drawers and a revolving drum top covered in green leather. But it’s not these features that make it important – the table has been held back from export because it belonged to Charles Dickens. It was in Dickens’s library at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent when he died in 1870, and contained the keys to his wine cellar (according to a letter of 1869). Before then, it had been in the offices of Dickens’s magazines Household Words and All the Year Round, and at his home in Devonshire Terrace near Regent’s Park. Dickens probably did not write at this table – it is not his famous writing desk, bought by the Charles Dickens Museum in London under similar circumstances three years ago – but he wrote of it in letters, and wrote near it in his library, and these personal significances are enough to make it an object of national significance.

As such, the table has a long pedigree: since the very beginning of his career, objects associated with Dickens or his creations have frequently doubled as literary memorabilia. A Victorian Londoner could, as Jennifer Wicke notes, smoke a Pickwick cigar while riding in a Weller cab and clutching a Sairey Gamp umbrella, sporting Dickens-branded corduroy trousers. The brightly wrapped serial numbers of his novels were calculated to appeal to potential buyers, not just as texts but also as objects. This sense that Dickens’s writing might be at once a commodity and a literary object informed Dickens’s father’s practice of selling his son’s juvenilia a page at a time, along with a written guarantee: ‘This Manuscript is in the handwriting of Mr. Charles Dickens’. Dickens’s table comes, similarly, with an authenticating silver plaque stating that it had been in Dickens’s library, and is said to be ‘one of the very first objects to have been formally labelled with Dickens’ name’. This is a surprising claim given the fact that, as a number of scholars have pointed out, Dickens’s name became a kind of brand very early on – Richard Bentley, for instance, offered £40 a year to continue using Dickens’s name when the author retired as editor of Bentley’s Miscellany in 1839.

Charles Dickens’s William IV mahogany table, probably built in around 1835 in London.

Charles Dickens’s William IV mahogany table, probably built in around 1835 in London. Courtesy DCMS

Given the potential for any author to disappear behind his texts, or into them, a writer’s furniture – in particular the furniture associated with the space of work – can seem a talisman keeping at bay what Roland Barthes famously describes as a kind of ‘death’. The stuff of the writer’s study can act as a material trace of the literary imagination at work, without the fiction of frictionless creativity that sometimes attends it. The chance that the sources of writers’ imaginations might be found in their furniture has inspired a number of recent studies, all of which share the belief that, as Sid Lerner has said, ‘the desk is an extension of one’s personality’.

This may be a particularly apt claim in Dickens’s case, since his writing often experiments with the ways a personality might be extended by or through material objects, not just in space or imaginative reach, but also in time. In Dickens’s texts, however, this sense of a life enduring in or through the objects associated with it – tables included – can often become troubling. Such scenes may take a sinister turn, as when Uriah Heep places his thumb on David Copperfield’s table and presses down ‘until it shook, and shook the room’. But they can also operate as jokes, as in an essay on the ‘supererogatory idiots’ who practice spiritualism, ‘Well-Authenticated Rappings’, in which a family ‘assembled about a round table’ watch it revolve and tip in response to their young son’s clumsy attempts to channel a spirit from beyond the grave. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is unsettling precisely because her life has been checked through its association with the things that adorn her table. In this way, she is at once alive and dead, and imagines that when she really dies she will be laid out on the same table as her wedding banquet so that her relatives can ‘feast on’ her corpse.

Michael Ellis asserts that ‘it is only right for there to be great expectations on us to protect Dickens’ study table for the benefit of the nation.’ But considering Dickens’s attentiveness to the ways in which an individual’s life might become hemmed in or penned up by association with his or her things, it is not clear that he would have agreed.