The room at the top of the Dickens Museum is a nursery, and has been dressed as such, with a children’s bed, some drawings, a display of Victorian toys and games, some freshly laundered linen draped over a wooden washstand. It would have been the room for Dickens’ own children – his eldest son Charles as well as Mary and Kate, both of whom were born in the house. It’s a lovely sweet room, quiet and calm, filled with a sense of being separated from the bustle of the rest of the house.
And then there are the prison bars – an original iron grille rescued from the old Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Borough, where, in 1824, Dickens’ father and most of his siblings were incarcerated for debt. A text panel describes how, being only 12 at the time, the young Dickens was put into lodgings nearby and ordered to work in a boot-blacking factory in Waterloo.
Being situated in the nursery, the installation of the grilles recalls the effect that his father’s imprisonment had on the young Dickens, describing how the episode would haunt him for the rest of his life, and how he would return to it, exploring it in his writing continuously.
Positioning the grilles not in his own bedroom, but in his children’s, invites the visitor to think about psychological legacy and how that very painful episode might have played itself out, perhaps more symbolically, in the emotional lives of children. The room does not tell us details about Charles, Mary, and Kate. Instead, we come face to face with the structure of family history common to us all. In this many layered house, we consider what kinds of emotional weights, prison grilles or otherwise, reside in the upstairs nurseries where we left our own play things years ago.