‘Kent, Sir – Every body knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops, and women.’ The Pickwick Papers.
Often seen as the greatest of the Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens lived in Kent from 1816 to 1822 when his father was working in the Naval Pay Office at Chatham Dockyard, and again from 1856 to his death in 1870 (at Gad’s Hill, Higham). The surrounding area appears in his earliest novel The Pickwick Papers, which includes a lovingly evocative depiction of local inn the Leather Bottle. Great Expectations takes the reader through local scenes from Cooling churchyard to Rochester with its Guildhall and - to Pip - equally awe inspiring Satis House. The hapless Magwitch will spend his last night of freedom just a few miles away at the sign of the ‘Ship’.
Dickens’s unfinished last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood is set largely in Rochester, and features landmarks such as the cathedral cloister and Eastgate House. He was working on the novel on the morning of his death in the Swiss Chalet at Gad’s Hill. This story of jealousy and intrigue has never been solved, although the obsessive behaviour of John Jasper continues to keep readers guessing. Just five years earlier Dickens’s own reputation had been threatened when the carriage in which he was travelling with Ellen Ternan was destabilised in the Staplehurst railway accident.
But while both Dickens’s childhood, honeymoon (He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and honeymooned at Chalk) and final homes were in West Kent, he spent many of the intervening summers on the other side of the county. Both the Dickens Museum and Bleak House pay tribute to the novelist’s strong association with Broadstairs. He spent many summers in Broadstairs (‘Our Watering Place’) in the 1840s and 1850s, where his fascination with the Goodwin Sands is evident in several of his letters. While Dickens was notably rude about Deal, he wrote affectionately about Folkestone, (thinly disguised as ‘Pavilionstone’), where he composed the opening scenes of Little Dorrit. The Pickwick Papers, published in instalments in 1836-37, recalls the pre-Victorian Kent of Dickens’s childhood, where coaching inns have not been displaced by railways and the practice of duelling can be invoked as a plausible plot device. A Tale of Two Cities (1859), goes further back still, as Jarvis Lorry travels by coach down the Dover Road on his way to revolutionary Paris. He gave a public reading at The Theatre Royal, Canterbury in 1861.
His two most obviously autobiographical novels, David Copperfield (1850) set partly in Dover and Canterbury, and Great Expectations (1861) with its powerful evocation of the estuary marshes, also return to a pre-railway era in their treatment of young men whose lives are shaped by the Kent landscape. His final novel, the uncompleted Mystery of Edwin Drood offers a notably more modern representation of Rochester, one that is linked to the temptations of London opium dens and rendered dangerous by the urges of sexual jealousy.
After his death in 1870, the areas of Kent most closely associated with Dickens and his novels became the focus for numerous guide writers and literary pilgrims. As the fresh air movement took hold in the early years of the twentieth century, designated Dickens ‘rambles’ and cycling tours were promoted as a means of engaging with a revered writer while escaping the demands and pollution of London.
His novels Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, ‘Our English Watering Place’, ‘Out of Town’ are all associated with Kent.