From the Notebook: Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888

Things are definitely crazy here on campus (did I mention I’m a Buckeye?), what with it being my last undergraduate year (!!). Grad school applications are slowly going out, and I will admit that a couple of these posts have been timestamped ahead of time just to keep up.

On to the subject of this post. This past summer I found treasure: Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888 is amazing. It’s written by Charles Dickens’s son, Charles Dickens, and covers everything from how much admission will cost (according to where you sit) in every major theatre in London, to how a person should walk down the street if you don’t want to get mugged. Here is an interesting article about fog that had me chuckling:

Fogs are, no doubt, not peculiar to London. Even Paris itself can occasionally turn out very respectable work in this way, and the American visitor to England will very probably think, in passing the banks of Newfoundland, that he has very little to learn on the subject of fog. But what Mr Guppy called “a London particular,” and what is more usually known to the natives as a “peasouper,” will very speedily dispel any little hallucination of this sort.

As the east wind brings up the exhalations of the Essex and Kentish marshes, and as the damp-laden winter air prevents the dispersion of the partly consumed carbon from hundreds of thousands of chimneys, the strangest atmospheric compound known to science fills the valley of the Thames. At such times almost all of the senses have their share of trouble. Not only does a strange and worse than Cimmerian darkness hide familiar landmarks from the sight, but the taste and smell are offended by an unhallowed compound of flavours, and all things become greasy and clammy to the touch. During the continuance of a real London fog–which may be black, or grey, or more probably orange-coloured–the happiest of men is he who can stay at home…

From Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: An Unconventional Handbook by Charles Dickens © 2006 by Old House Books

So… I basically read this “dictionary” cover-to-cover. Shows how much of a research nerd I am, right? I still can’t believe my luck that I found a guide to London published exactly in the middle of my novel’s time line. Dickens is a wonderful writer, as you can tell by the passage above. Who knew fog could be so interesting? You can tell Dickens loved London, that he knew it intimately, and that he was probably a spirited conversationalist. The first couple of pages in the book include a detailed map of London, which is indispensable for a history writer like me.

So let me ask you writers, have you ever found that one source that proved to make the others pale in comparison? A primary source that gives you an insider look? What about sources that sent you on a wild goose chase? Do you even care about research?