At a time when animals were expected to work and owning pets for pleasure was still a bit of a novelty, Charles Dickens owned a small zoo’s worth of pets, and now the Charles Dickens Museum is taking a look at the family pets.

Some of the pets were known to his readers, as they appeared as inspiration in his stories – such as the talking raven and his bull terrier dog – and others proved the inspiration for characters who could be described with animal characteristics. The raven, called Grip was more of a legion, as there were several ravens in succession, all called Grip (echos of Babylon 5’s Kosh there), although maybe the later ones were less likely to fly around biting people.

It turned out the family also owned an eagle, although not for long, for sad reasons when the eagle was looked after by a supposed friend.

Dickens was a prolific letter writer, at least when the animals permitted it, and the letters form the core of this exhibition, which recounts his fondness and, at times, annoyances with the pet-filled house.

I was particularly amused by the story of the rushlight that kept having its flame extinguished—which turned out to be because the cat was demanding attention. Anyone who regularly finds their cat lounging over the computer keyboard at home begging for cuddles will sympathise with Dicken’s plight.

The exhibition is full of nuggets like this – and Dickens, like many people of reasonable wealth, had a horse for riding, but maybe to protect his public image, he refused to mount the horse in public. It turns out he wasn’t a very good rider but didn’t want people to know.

Do look for the family’s Gad’s Hill Gazette and read the adulatory letter from an admirer, who ends his letter warning that anyone who cancels their subscription would “become the most wretched of mortals”.

There’s also some covered cases to open, some have text underneath but otheres include objects, such as this collectable Bull’s-eye dog, inside the glass dome many objects were sold with to protect them from the soot that pervaded Victorian houses.

At a time when people were urbanising and losing their connection with nature, there was increasing interest in pet ownership, and this exhibition straddles the transition from animals being seen as nothing more than food or machines to one where they could be soft and fluffy pets.

Well, some of them at least.

It’s a clever exhibition that takes a new look at a person most of us think we know, but often only through his writings, not the day-to-day life of a pet-owning household.

Some of the captions may distress people not so used to the idea that pets were a novelty at the time, but that’s history for you – the past is rarely romantic.

The exhibition Faithful Companions: Charles Dickens & his Pets is at the Charles Dickens Museum until early next year and is included in the museum’s entry price.

Adults: £13.13 | Childen (6-16): £7.88 | Children (<6): Free | Concessions: £11.03

You can book tickets here or pay on the day.


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