Portsmouth is a place steeped in history: you can step back in time with a visit to Southsea Castle (built on the orders of Henry VIII), visit what’s left of the Mary Rose (the ship that spent 437 years under the sea), and walk around Lord Nelson’s HMS Warrior ship. However, Portsmouth also has a vibrant literary history. ‘Really?’ I hear you say, well let’s follow in those footsteps.
Charles Dickens was born and baptised in Portsmouth in February 1812. To this day he is referred to as the city’s most famous son. Admittedly, Dickens only lived in Portsmouth for a few years, but his father – John Dickens, a clerk in the naval offices – rented a property at 1 Mile End Terrace, Old Commercial Road in 1809 where he spent the early part of his life. The house, which still survives, is now theCharles Dickens Birthplace Museum. The parlour, dining room and bedroom in the house have all been furnished to replicate the regency era, giving an insight into how his family lived. The exhibition room in the museum even boasts the author’s personal items, including a snuff box, inkwell, paperknife and – for those with morbid tendencies – the couch on which he died.
Portsmouth must have had an impression on the young Dickens, as he returned to the city to research for his novel Nicholas Nickleby. He wrote:
‘I don’t know much of these matters,’ resumed Nicholas; ‘but Portsmouth is a seaport town, and if no other employment is to be obtained, I should think we might get on board some ship. I am young and active, and could be useful in many ways. So could you.’ (Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)
The protagonist, Nicholas, travels from London to Portsmouth to become a sailor. If you’re a Dickens enthusiast, don’t expect to land a job as a sailor, but Portsmouth is a great place to book a session at the central library and get your hands on a wide range of Dickens’ texts and his periodicals ‘Household Words’ and ‘All the Year Round.’