Dickens' exhibition shows London is no stranger to episodes of fog


London fog is the focus of the exhibition 'Dickens And The London Fog', which opens March 29 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. Photo: AFP

Londoners are familiar with the appearance of fog over the river Thames in winter and autumn. This meteorological phenomenon has influenced many British artists, including the writer Charles Dickens.

An exhibition looks at the relationship between the English novelist and the famous "fog."

London's fog gets a mention in many of Dickens' books, including A Christmas Carol, The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend. But it is especially central to Bleak House.

The English author published it as a 20-part serial between March 1852 and September 1853, before turning it into a single volume. Dickens certainly did not suspect that Britain would experience one of the worst episodes of air pollution in its history, a century after the publication of Bleak House.

Between Dec 5 and 9, 1952, a thick fog of a strange yellow and black colour - "smog" - appeared in the English capital. The fog was so dense that it caused the death of 12,000 people, mainly children and the elderly, by sparking respiratory infections, pneumonia and bronchitis.

The victims were poisoned by a mixture of air pollutants consisting mainly of sulfur dioxide, fine particles, ozone and tar. Fog a key element of the "19th century London experience"

London fog is the focus of the exhibition Dickens And The London Fog, which opens March 29 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

The display features letters, manuscript fragments, illustrations and objects that document the impact of fog on 19th century Londoners, including Dickens.

"Dickens wrote about what he saw, and (fog) is such an important part of the London experience in the 19th century - you couldn't live in London without being plagued by it," Frankie Kubicki, senior curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, told The Guardian.

Dickens even used this meteorological phenomenon to fuel his plots. Under his pen, the fog becomes a threatening presence that testifies to the paradoxes of a city where the poorest people live side by side with the wealthiest. But this fog could also be perceived under a more positive lens.

"While pollution is often used by Dickens to represent a malevolent force or a shady character, London's coal fires and twinkling gas street lamps can be heartwarming, nostalgic sights, which comforted Londoners," Kubicki told the English daily.

The Dickens And The London Fog exhibition also looks at how London has tried to combat air pollution over the past two centuries. The city's various mayors have made it a major issue in their respective terms of office.

This has led to the introduction of many restrictions on car traffic and the creation of a congestion charge for most vehicles. In addition, an ultra-low emission zone was implemented between 2019 and 2021 in the historic centre.

All these initiatives show that the English capital has learned its lessons from the 1952 smog.The Dickens And The London Fog exhibition will be open between March 29 and Oct 22 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. - AFP

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