Dickens World

One week ago today Charles Dickens turned 200. For some, it was the most important thing to happen in England in 2012, a year in which London will host the Summer Olympics for the first time in over 60 years. I’m almost positive it was the most important thing to happen in the English town of Chatham, home to something called  — I am not making this up — Dickens World.

Dickens World
A street in Dickens World - Creative Commons (Shaun Dunmall)

Yes, there is an amusement park that seeks to recreate the world of Charles Dickens’ stories, to provide what its website promises is

an amazing, multi-sensory, interactive experience where you can leave behind the modern world and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of nineteenth century England.

“Smells?”, at least one of you just asked.

Yes, smells. Here’s how literary critic Sam Anderson described the original mission of Dickens World:

It promised to be an “authentic” re-creation of the London of Charles Dickens’s novels, complete with soot, pickpockets, cobblestones, gas lamps, animatronic Dickens characters and strategically placed chemical “smell pots” that would, when heated, emit odors of offal and rotting cabbage. Its centerpiece was the Great Expectations boat ride, which started in a rat-infested creek, flew over the Thames, snaked through a graveyard and splashed into a sewer. Its staff had all been trained in Victorian accents and body language. Visitors could sit at a wooden desk and get berated by an angry Victorian schoolteacher, watch Dickensian holograms antagonize one another in a haunted house or set their kids loose in a rainbow-colored play area called, ominously, Fagin’s Den, after the filthy kidnapper from “Oliver Twist.”

The thousand souls who applied for the first fifty jobs had to go through “American Idol-style auditions” in which they roleplayed customer service scenarios, but had to respond “in a Victorian manner.”

Anderson confessed that he wasn’t sure how to respond when he first heard of Dickens World:

Was it a homage to, or a desecration of, the legacy of Charles Dickens? Was it the reinvention of, or the cheapening of, our culture’s relationship to literature? And even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London — with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its average life span of 27 years — why would anyone want to visit?

“Why wouldn’t anyone want to visit?!?”, I near-screamed.

Granted: I’m a modern European historian. I enjoy Dickens. And I love the idea of “living history,” even its most commercialized forms. I went to college across the street from “the world’s largest living history museum”: Colonial Williamsburg. And when my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Nova Scotia, I insisted that we interrupt the most romantic week of our lives to visit the Fortress of Louisbourg, a rebuilt 18th century French fortress that bills itself as “North America’s largest historical reconstruction.” (Props to the historical interpreter playing the role of a Swiss mercenary: I couldn’t stump him.)

I would so much rather visit a “lavish simulacrum of 1850s London” than go to Six Flags!

But I’m pretty sure I’d be disappointed in Dickens World, which has had a troubled history. Anderson first visited in 2007, when the place was scheduled to open. But things were behind schedule, so “Instead of a functional attraction, I found a vaguely Dickensian construction site.” Anderson was underwhelmed, but still found it all

fascinating to watch. The laborers had been hired to do basically the opposite of a typical construction job. They were building squalor — making new things look old, clean things look filthy, dry things look wet, solid things look rotten. A worker named Phil explained to me some of the park’s technical aspects. The ivy was silk. The trees were polyurethane cores surrounded by sculptured plaster. The cobblestones were made from a latex mold of actual cobblestones. The moss was a mixture of sawdust, glue and green paint — you stirred it in a bucket and flung it on the walls. The bricks were casting plaster that had been dyed pencil-eraser pink; they arrived in big rolled sheets that were bolted to the wooden buildings, in thin layers toward the top (where no one would touch it) and thick layers below — because, Phil said, kids tend to kick things. Later, professional scene painters came along to make the pink bricks look grimy, adding highlights to signify texture and smoke. The result looked so good that, when I got back to London, some of the actual Victorian-era brick and moss and ivy struck me as unrealistic.

Anderson went back last month. While you’d expect Dickens World to be at its best so close to the Dickens bicentenary, the critic found that “It was the worst of times.” Few visit aside from some school groups and retirees; jobs and hours had been slashed, so that “posts were abandoned; displays were broken; animatronics failed to animate”; and main signs of life came from a megaplex movie theater and fast food restaurants like Pizza Hut. Anderson and a friend went on the — again, not making this up — “Great Expectations” boat ride, and it all got to be too much for him:

After a minute or two, someone came and put us on a boat. Halfway up a dark tunnel, the chemical smell-pots engulfed us in a powerful cloud of sour mildew. It was genuinely unpleasant, and in the midst of that cloud of stench I felt something suddenly slip inside of me: two centuries of literary touristic tradition, the pressure of Dickens reverence, the absurdity of this commodified experience — all of it broke, like a fever, and what poured out of me was hysterical laughter. I laughed, in a high-pitched cackle that sounded like someone else’s voice, for most of the ride.

(Be sure to click through to see the photo of Anderson and his friend, who smiles a “smile of sadness, confusion, defeat, resignation.”)

Now, horrific as this sounds, I’m sure it could be worse. With France’s track record for amusement parks, Madame Bovary Land is a bad idea whose time must never, ever come.

Charles Dickens (1842)
1842 drawing of Charles Dickens - Wikimedia

And, failures of Dickens World to the side, it does seem to speak to a common longing that most of us share: to somehow return to the past, imagined and/or historic.

Anderson frames Dickens World as one rather dismal manifestation of “literary tourism,” an activity that Charles Dickens himself engaged in and has long been pursued by his fans. (Anderson notes that Dickens — who “was, in many ways, the world’s biggest Dickens fan” — often returned to sites associated with his stories.) Another of these Dickens tourists was G.K. Chesterton, who enthused: “It is well to be able to realize that contact with the Dickens world is almost like a physical contact; it is like stepping suddenly into the hot smells of a greenhouse, or into the bleak smell of the sea. We know that we are there.”

In my wildest dreams, Chesterton’s description would be my goal for any meeting of any history class at Bethel. Student and teacher would together forget that they were in a dark, noisy, cinderblocked classroom and be transported to another time and place. Of course, we’d be missing those “sights, sounds and smells,” and the neo-Victorian customer service reps trying to help us find the Pizza Hut. But just as a Dickens novel is able to create a world so vivid that even a painstakingly reverent (Anderson: “too reverent, and reverent about the wrong things”) recreation can’t measure up, so too I hope that a well-taught history class can engage the imagination and — if only for a fleeting second — cause us “to know that we are there.”

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