Charles Dickens: A Literary Life

Watch an online exhibition featuring first edition books, photographs and more from the Linen Hall Library

Charles Dickens made three visits to Belfast, in 1858, 67 and 69, to give public readings of his work, and received a very warm welcome on each occasion.

When he was here, as the social historian John Gray explains in CultureNorthernIreland's Literary Lions Audio Essay, the ever-adventurous author ‘went up the Cave Hill and bought a jaunting car’.

‘The oddest carriage in the world,’ observed Dickens, after this impulsive escapade, ‘and you’re always falling off, but it is gay and bright in the highest degree. Wonderfully Neopolitan.’

The prolific travel writer later wrote of Belfast: ‘Tremendous houses there. Curious people, too. They seem all Scotch, but quite in a state of transition,’ and looked back on his ‘delightful days’ in the city with great affection.

Now the Linen Hall Library – which Dickens surely visited in its former guise as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge in the old White Linen Hall building, where Belfast City Hall now stands – is celebrating the life and work of Victorian England’s greatest novelist with an exhibition entitled Dickens: A Literary Life.

The exhibition features photographs of Dickens, from early adulthood to old age (he died in 1890, aged just 58), as well as rare first editions of novels like The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby and serialised versions of his early works.

Other Dickens memorabilia on show on the ground, first and second floors of the library include a commemorative postage-stamp and half-penny, and decorative plates featuring scenes from A Christmas Carol and other stories.

For lovers of the author it is a must-see exhibition from an institution which, evidently, has a remarkable collection to draw upon. (And perhaps begs the question: why are these extraordinary specimens not on show all of the time?)

As current librarian John Killen says of the first editions, ‘On the second-hand book market they would [sell] for anything from £400 to thousands of pounds.' To see them in the flesh, therefore, is a great pleasure indeed.

Take a tour of Dickens: A Literary Life, featuring commentary from John Killen, in the online exhibition below. The exhibition runs until Friday, February 25.