1812-1870 - Charles Dickens
|This Swiss chalet, a Christmas gift to him in 1864, was built on a well-shaded piece of land that stood close by Dickens' home, Gad's Hill House in Kent. It was a secret place, reached by a tunnel under the main Rochester road, to which he might retreat from the pressures of his extraordinary fame. Here, as well as a desk and the usual comforts, Dickens installed a telescope so he could observe the countryside and the distant Thames. The chalet was his place of work in spring and summer, an alternative to his study in the house or his London office, where he edited his magazine All The Year Round. It came as a kit of parts and a theatrical carpenter had to be summoned from London to help with its assembly. There was a room on each floor and the sunlight was reflected and intensified by mirrors until the interior positively shimmered - an ironic contrast, certainly, with the dark themes of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which were written here. The latter was unfinished at the time of Dickens' death. Why do many authors need a private place in which to write?
Over the winter of 1864-5, even the prodigious energies of Charles Dickens were beginning to flag under the strain imposed by his extraordinary circumstances. He was not merely a full-time novelist but also - if it can be imagined - the full-time editor of (and a frequent contributor to) his own weekly magazine, All The Year Round. He had undertaken exhausting tours of theatres in Britain and America to give dramatised readings from his books, and was heavily involved in charitable work. He referred to himself as The Inimitable' with some justification. On top of this workload, mysterious ailments frequently prostrated him, his marriage had failed and the apparent inability of some members of his family to come up to his own (perhaps exaggerated) expectations of them was a gnawing worry. And yet in this same period he completed what is generally considered to be his best and most deeply serious work, Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865. In such circumstances the arrival of the Swiss chalet - as a Christmas present from his friend and admirer, the actor Charles Fechter - must have been more than welcome. For some time past he had been dividing his time, when not engaged on his marathon reading tours, between his London office and his home near Rochester. He had first seen Gad's Hill House as a boy - his father had pointed it out to him as the kind of property a gentleman might aspire to - and its purchase in 1856 was the realisation of a long-held ambition. It was not an especially large house, however, and in order to maintain his exacting schedules - he was a man of exceedingly regular habits - Dickens often found it necessary to escape to the chalet from his family and the house guests he regularly accommodated. He was writing the final chapters of Edwin Drood in its upstairs room only hours before he died. The chalet still survives and is preserved in Rochester, though not on its original site or open to the public.