Ace of Air
Charles Dickens had a love-hate affair with the city of London. In his day, it was the largest city in the world - the epicentre if not the jewel of the British Empire. Its sights, sounds, and smells were overwhelming, not least of all to a sensitive observer like Dickens. He was repelled by its indifference, poverty, and squalor, but was captivated by its theatres, clubs, and its concentrated bustle of life which was in turn the lifeblood of his own work. To poor travellers approaching its outskirts, London was in Dickens' words “the monster, roaring in the distance.” On a cold spring evening with an east wind blowing, it became “a black shrill city, combining the qualities of a smoky house and a scolding wife.”
A mimic and journalist at core, many of Dickens' ideas came directly from observing the eccentricities of character which London life teamed with. He routinely walked its streets, often 10 or 20 miles at a time. He was as acquainted with its slums as with its salubrious areas, walking the destitute and prostitute ridden neighbourhoods at night with the ease and confidence he felt strolling the fashionable neighbourhoods of Oxford and Regent street by day. London's buildings were black with soot and coal smoke, and it was often choked in thick, obfuscating fog. By night, the streets were lit – if at all – by feeble gas lights, while inside a candle or oil lamp struggled to illuminate the greater darkness.
Cattle were commonly driven through the streets to live cattle markets and slaughterhouses within the city itself, as Dickens wrote of sarcastically in Household Words:
"In half a quarter of a mile's length of Whitechapel, at one time, there shall be six hundred newly slaughtered oxen hanging up, and seven hundred sheep but, the more the merrier proof of prosperity. Hard by Snow Hill and Warwick Lane, you shall see the little children, inured to sights of brutality from their birth, trotting along the alleys, mingled with troops of horribly busy pigs, up to their ankles in blood but it makes the young rascals hardy. Into the imperfect sewers of this overgrown city, you shall have the immense mass of corruption, engendered by these practices, lazily thrown out of sight, to rise, in poisonous gases, into your house at night, when your sleeping children will most readily absorb them, and to find its languid way, at last, into the river that you drink."
Counter-intuitively perhaps, when Dickens was away from London, he pined for its wretchedness and diverting commotion. When in the country, or abroad in Italy or France, he longed to walk through the Big Smoke's dark streets at night, or visit its mortuaries as he frequently did, calling his inability to do so a tormenting “mental phenomenon”. At some peaceful retreat on the European Continent, he wrote to Forster complaining of being unable to write properly when away from London: “I don't seem to be able to get rid of my spectres unless I can lose them in crowds.”
London was also the home to one of Dickens' true loves – the theatre. Here too he was able to share in intellectual conversation and companionship at the Garrick Club, the Shakespeare Club, the Cerberus Club, and the Athenaeum Club. Dickens formally conducted business from his London offices. He was as well-informed of fashionable middle and upper-class London as he was of its slums, becoming the frequent guest of the Countess of Blessington's salon at Gore House and mingling with such luminaries as Wellington, Disraeli, Landor, and Sydney Smith. Other friendships, here, with the beau monde, included the Duke of Devonshire, Alfred Count D'Orsay, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Angela Burdett Coutts.
One thing which cannot be overlooked and which was always prominent in Dickens' consciousness was London's intimate connection with its river, the Thames. As the suit of Air is representational of thought, an intimate connection is thus drawn between this card and the Ace of Water – The Thames, itself representational of emotion.
Dickens involved himself directly with the workings of London – its sanitation, its schools, and its metropolitan police department, established in 1829. As a result, many of the capital's ills were eventually remedied by the consciousness and social awareness raised by Charles Dickens through both his fiction and non-fiction writings. Dickens' work is intimately entwined with London, just as London's history and image is forever bound up with Dickens' depictions.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.