Dickens Dark London

2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and the Museum of London is celebrating with a high profile exhibition and iPhone and iPad apps titled “Dickens Dark London.”  Loving Dickens, I had to find out about it.

Below is the official museum brochure:

Click the download button (  Scribd Download Button  ) to get your own PDF copy.

The brochure is fine for those who can afford to visit London, but what about the app?

In a word, spectacular.  To quote from the Museum’s description:

Dark London Icon“Beautifully imagined by renowned illustrator David Foldvari, this interactive graphic novel follows Dickens on his night walks of London – the city he called his ‘magic lantern’ – where, as an insomniac, he roamed the streets gathering inspiration from the people and places he observed.

“Accompanying audio, narrated by actor Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes), gives voice to Dickens as passages from his works provide vivid descriptions of the Victorian capital. Bonus material featuring illustrated excerpts of some of Dickens’ most famous novels – from Bleak House to Oliver Twist – also brings to life the 19th century city that Dickens used as his muse and the backdrop for many of his greatest works.

“Drawn from a selection of his short stories featured in Sketches By Boz, Dickens: Dark London will be published monthly throughout the run of the exhibition to echo how Dickens himself released his writings. All editions of the app are brought together on an 1862 map of London, overlaid with modern satellite images of the capital, allowing you to compare the city that Dickens knew with the London of today.”

The iPad app’s menu has three entries:  Map – Editions – Exhibition.

The map is of London, with a modern, aerial view of the city as you would see it in Google Earth, overlaid by an historical map of the city as it was in 1862, with a transparency/opacity slider between the two views.  Why 1862 was chosen rather than 1836 (the publication date of Sketches by Boz) is not explained, but perhaps the availability of just the right map was the controlling factor.  The development of London in these years was exponential, but the map feature is more of a gimmick than anything else.  The location of the various Editions are marked on the map, which seems to be the point.  A similar view of London now/then can be achieved in Google Earth using the Rumsey Historical Maps layer to get an 1843 view of the city, a little closer to the actual city of Boz.

The Exhibition part of the app is nothing but an ad for the museum exhibit, with a link, of course, to book tickets now.  Museums are in a bind, of course, offering their exhibitions in electronic form to whet interest, but not showing too much, as not to discourage actual paid attendance.  Read on to find out how museum officials solved this problem in the instance.

The Editions menu entry is the heart of the app.  The editions are the “chapters” in the multimedia “graphic novel.”  The first, titled “Seven Dials” (the famous London slum) is free to download with the app.  There will be five in all, published intermittently throughout the run of the exhibition.  The title of Edition 2 is “Newgate Prison.”  The titles for the final three have not been released, meaning probably that someone is hard at work on them as you read this.  The Editions after the free first one are priced at £1.49.  At today’s conversion rate that is $2.33, but you can bet it will morph into either $1.99 or 2.99 in the app store.

Seven Dials Poor
Portion of a photo, resized, from the app

To start reading an edition simply tap its cover.  The audio starts and stops with standard audio controls on each page.  There are hotspots on most “pages,” marked with a red bulls-eye, on the illustrations for sidebar ‘deeper look’ material, or annotative material explaining Dickens’ terms now lost on us.  For example, Dickens describes a peripatetic stranger standing in Seven Dials for the first time who “stands Belzoni-like.”  One of the bulls-eyes next to the text explains that Belzoni was a turn of the (19th) century Italian showman and “archaeologist” who revealed the exotic worlds of the orient (Egypt) to gawking audiences, and goes on to explain “…Dickens is suggesting that walking in the Seven Dials is as alien, and perhaps as deathly, as stepping inside an Egyptian tomb.”  The illustrations accompanying the bulls-eye highlights are all copyright Museum of London, and present unique views of materials that we would otherwise have to travel to London to see.  (When the bulls-eyes disappear as you are reading, just touch the text to bring them back).  The illustrations themselves can be zoomed by double-tapping, and returned for normal size by double-tapping again.

The sidebars are not limited strictly to texts by Dickens.  In “Seven Dials” they reference topics as diverse as the germ theory of disease and Chadwick’s famous work Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population; sumptuary practices in London’s stratified class system; the cause if rickets (vitamin D deficiency-with photographs); Irish immigration and the potato famine.

The “Seven Dials” edition is engaging enough, but somewhat brief, so it is supplemented from a reading from Dickens—once again, narrated by Strong and illustrated by Foldvari.  For this edition, the reading is “The Fog,” Dickens’ preamble to Bleak House, perhaps the second best novel ever written (if I can be allowed a personal opinion) after War and Peace.

At the end we get a “coming soon Newgate Prison” come on, and then the inevitable opportunity to share on twitter or facebook.

In all, it is a deeply interesting work.  Foldvari’s illustrations are as dark as the text, though I think the illustration to the reading about animosities between slum dwellers is overwrought with a modern perspective of horror not necessarily shared by the Dials’ denizens.  Art is opinion, of course.  Strong’s narrative interpretation is perfect, with the right tone of dread, weariness and the ominous.  In all, I would say the production is excellent, and I’m sold on purchasing the subsequent “editions” as they arrive.

If the app whets your appetite and you are interested in Sketches by Boz, there are free editions available for e-readers from Amazon for the Kindle, Google Books for many other e-reader platforms, and Project Gutenberg.  To further entice your interest in this outstanding app, here is the “trailer” from William Raban’s The Houseless Shadow, a film commissioned by the Museum of London to document London life at night.