Workhouse grub and the effects of tight lacing: Dickens and his World


Dickens and his World: Bodleian exhibition 2nd June-28th October

One of the best things about working in Oxford this year has been the free exhibitions that the Bodleian put on in their Exhibition Room.  First it was Treasures of the Bodleianwhere you could see items as diverse as Shakespeare’s First Folio, a handwritten draft of a Wilfred Owen poem and a fourteenth century bestiary filled with strange and wonderful creatures.  Next was Romance of the Middle Ages, which showcased manuscripts from the late Middle Ages (Sir Gawain, King Arthur etc.) and how they had influenced art and literature throughout history.  The exhibitions were fantastic – created with great care and very informative – and all free, to everyone.

So I was pleased to hear that the third exhibition of the year, Dickens and his World had opened this Saturday, and I went eagerly along to see it.

The Bodleian Exhibition Room has to be kept very dark – I assume to protect the books and manuscripts – so it took a while for my eyes to focus, but the exhibits themselves were well lit, and you could see and read everything perfectly well.  The exhibits were kept in a number of glass cases, and backed by information boards and blown up pictures.  Visitors could wander round as they liked, and there was a small counter where you could buy postcards and guides.

You would think that a Dickens exhibition could really only involve books, and there were a few cases of books – some early editions, some open to show illustrations by Phiz and some publications that are not well known in the Dickens canon.  One that amused me was The Village Coquettes, a comic operetta published in 1836, and which was placed open on a page where a young female character sings about how old people have forgotten the fun of flirtation!

However, books were definitely not the only things on show – for a start, Dickens’ works weren’t initially published in book form.  They came out in installments, leaving audiences with cliffhanger endings waiting for the next serial part. The Bodleian, as a legal deposit library, got all the serial parts.  Unfortunately, conscientious librarians at the time bound them all together, and the library had to end up buying back the front covers when they realised what historical value they would have!  They were on show in the exhibition with covers restored.

But the majority of exhibits had, in fact, come from the wonderful John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemerawhich collects historical ephemera such as theatre bills, adverts and leaflets.  It has been partly digitised and is available free in the UK to all higher ed institutions and public libraries.  Well worth a look if you have access!  Although designed to be ‘ephemeral’ in their very nature, preserved in this way such items give a fascinating insight into daily life.

In the exhibition, a whole wall of playbills showed us some very fast-and-loose nineteenth century adaptations of Dickens’ works – some apparently put on even before Dickens had finished the story!  Characters were plucked out of the novels and given their own star billing – the sad story of Little Em’ly (from David Copperfield) for instance, looked like it had received some rave reviews.

One of my favourite exhibits was a carefully constructed cardboard theatre.  I used to have a similar kind of one as a child, but this one was set up with the scene from Oliver Twist where Bill Sykes brutally murders Nancy – Victorian children were obviously quite hardy.  It is amazing how such items have been preserved in the library for all this time.

Many of the displays dealt with different aspects of Dickens’ world – the railways for instance, and the workhouse.  On show were the pamphlets published to advise workhouses how much food each inmate should be given (not much), and a terrible diatribe about the perils of putting unmarried mothers in the same room as ‘respectable’ women.   In the ‘Diversions of London’ case a leaflet advertised an ‘anatomical waxworks’ display, which proudly claimed to show such disgusting wonders as a waxwork undergoing a Cesarean section, and a waxwork demonstrating the ‘evil effects of Tight Lacing’.  Forerunners of the Channel 4 documentary methinks!

Of course, in a Dickens exhibition we can’t forget his actual writing – there were quotes from his novels to complement the items from the John Johnson Collection, and in the corner you could sit and listen with headphones to longer passages.

As a literature and history fan, and also as someone who would be really interested in working in special collections and library exhibitions in a future life, it has been great to see how the Bodleian exhibits its special collections, and I would recommend anyone in Oxford to go and take a look.