When I went to London with my mom and sister in my early twenties, one of the highlights was visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b (ish) Baker Street. As we stood in Sherlock’s ultra-Victorian living room, I was in ecstasies, pointing to things and whispering, “look! There’s his violin! Look! There’s his pipe! Look! There’s where he shot Queen Victoria’s initials into the wall!” Finally, my sister turned to me with a pitying look and said, “you know he didn’t actually exist, don’t you?”
The weird thing was that this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the slightest. If anything, I returned the pitying look because she didn’t share my joy. And I still can’t explain that while, yes, I know very well that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, there was something inexplicable about standing in his living room.
I was reminded of this moment yesterday, Charlie, because I had a similar moment with one of your characters. I recently bought a book called “Lost London” by Philip Davies. It’s a collection of photographs of London streets and buildings taken in the early years of the Twentieth century. The buildings have almost all been demolished, so it’s an absolutely fascinating look into the city as you would have known it.
Anyway, I must have spent a good couple of hours engrossed in the photos, when I came across a photo taken of the back of the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. By the time the photo was taken the building had been converted to warehouses, but in this back view you can see the high, spiked fence that marked the exercise yard on the other side, and which Little Dorritt sees from her room’s window.
Many combinations did those spikes upon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itself into, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit sat there musing.
Knowing that your own father had been imprisoned here for debt made it a very poignant photo, since he, and most probably you, spent a lot of time staring at that same high wall and those imposing spikes.
But what got me thinking back to Baker Street was that on the facing page there was a photo of Little Dorrit’s own tiny garret room! What an unexpected and amazingly timely find!
A garret, and a Marshalsea garret without compromise, was Little Dorrit’s room.
Yes, Little Dorrit doesn’t exist, but there’s something thrilling about seeing the room that you had obviously seen (maybe even slept in yourself?) and which you had given over to your character. It’s not even that it makes me feel closer to you. I feel closer to her. It was the same when I saw a photo of an old coaching inn and suddenly felt that I knew Sam Weller a bit better than I did before.
And it’s not just me. What makes us treat fictional characters as real people? Why visit Highclere Castle and pretend it’s “Downton Abbey”? Why go to New Zealand and tour the settings from “The Lord of the Rings”? Why stand in a room in Baker Street and get so excited? In the end, not even my sister was immune, since she unashamedly visited the village which was the setting for “Ballykissangel” while she was travelling in Ireland. (Although she still insists that there’s a difference between seeing something that was on tv in real life and seeing something completely made up. Potato potahto.) 😉
All I know is that finding that unexpected photo has made me enjoy reading Little Dorrit even more. I can’t explain it, but maybe I don’t have to.