I am an unabashed literary voyeur—one of those people compelled to seek out the places where writers find their inspiration. Luckily, I had the perfect excuse to indulge this obsession while researching and writing Novel Destinations—a sort of booklover’s Baedeker to literary locales in the U.S. and Europe—which I co-authored with my friend and fellow bibliophile, Shannon McKenna Schmidt. Over the years I’ve visited dozens of author houses and I often feel my pulse race and my skin prickle at the sensation of inhabiting the three-dimensional world where famous writers once lived, loved, wrote and found inspiration.
Nowhere is this sensation more visceral than at the London home of one of my literary idols—Charles Dickens. The brick Georgian dwelling where he penned such novels as Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist was one of the most moving and atmospheric places that I encountered while researching my book. Now, two days a week, I pause on the home’s doorstep and reflect on my good fortune that I am lucky enough to work at 48 Doughty Street.
Recently, I’ve embarked on a new project at the museum, helping to curate our upcoming exhibition on A Tale of Two Cities. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication, and fittingly, since it surrounds the events of the French Revolution, the exhibit opens on Bastille Day. We are feverishly working to get everything done in time: finalizing the items to be displayed, securing loan materials from other museums, and even recreating settings from the novel, such as Dr. Manette’s shoe workshop and the guillotine platform where Sydney Carton meets his end.
Last week, the first tangible signs of the exhibition got underway when we moved all of the antique furnishings out of the dining room to create space for the exhibit. You can imagine how nervous we were moving Dickens’s 200-pound antique sideboard and Mr. Pickwick’s delicate grandfather clock! Fortunately, the spirit of Charles Dickens seemed to be keeping a watchful eye over his possessions, and—except for one staffer’s broken toe (crushed by the sideboard)—all went fairly smoothly.
When I first started writing about literary houses several years ago, I had no idea my journey would end up here, moving Dickens’ furniture, rummaging through his cupboards and forging a personal connection with literary history.
If you’re going to BEA, Joni will be signing copies of Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, along with Shannon McKenna Schmidt in the autographing area on Friday, May 29, 11:30-12, Table 11. Stop by and say hello! Readers can also find Joni and Shannon on their website.