Lucinda Hawksley: ‘I still haven’t been given an adequate explanation for why they are closing the Dickens Museum this year’

Lucinda Dickens-Hawksley talks about the closing of the Dickens Museum in his bicentenary year, and how Dickens’ personality traits can be traced through the family tree

On the eve of her great-great-great-grandfather’s bicentenary, Lucinda Hawksley is at Highgate Cemetery for a special event to mark the occasion. The biographer and art historian has visited the cemetery a lot since she first became interested in art history as a student. Soon she will return here to give a talk about Dickens himself – following a biography she has just released. Hawksley will also share her knowledge of Lizzie Siddal, the Kate Moss of the Pre-Raphaelite era who, having been exhumed at Dante Rossetti’s command, was as dramatic in death as she was in life. She is also buried in the cemetery, along with several of Hawksley’s ancestors.

Hawksley is one of the few living decendants of Dickens who has followed his path into writing. Her work normally focuses on art, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, who she describes as “a trendy set of young and daring men”. Her foray into her family history, now a big part of her work, was initially accidental. “In my early 20s, I was never particularly involved at all until I wrote a biography of his (Dickens’s) daughter Katey, who was an artist. I spent a lot of time at the museum. It took me five years to research the book about Katey and so I got really involved with the museum at that time. That’s when I also got involved in Dickens’s life – I was looking at him as a father.”

Hawksley is a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum and regularly interacts with his fans through societies and by giving talks. Perhaps this is why she is so disappointed at the decision to close the museum from April this year for refurbishment – making her views heard most recently on Radio 4. “I still haven’t been given an explanation, an adequate explanation as to why they are closing it this year, when people will want to visit,” she says. “It’s crazy.”

As a writer, it must be tough to live in the shadow of such a literary giant. I wonder what it feels like to be a member of Dickens’s family, and whether as a writer she still feels a connection. “Because it is so many generations back, he’s so well known as an historic figure that there is a distance there. What is so interesting is when you understand the personality traits you come across because they are still in the family. I felt that when I was writing a biography of Katey I just felt like I knew her so well because I recognised how she behaved and I could understand why she acted in certain ways. I think that is common to any family history, whether the person is famous or not, that you feel an amazing connection when you do look into your family history. I’d like to do more on my mum’s side too, if I ever get the time to.”

It’s a busy time for Hawksley, she’s just come back from giving lectures on a cruise ship in Asia and consequently jet lag has now set in. “At 3.30am, I just couldn’t sleep and I decided to listen to iPlayer and they were talking about Nicholas Nickleby and saying how it’s a story of scandal and intrigue. They are really repackaging Dickens – they make them sound so exciting – they are so exciting.”

Dickens began his career writing serialised stories for weekly magazines. This, along with his tough upbringing and life experience, brought to life through vivid characters on the page, made him a writer of the people. Hawksley continues the tradition by shunning any snobbery surrounding literature today. She doesn’t turn her nose up to rehashed versions of Dickens’s stories to capture the attention of children and get them reading. “If it is Dickens or Dora the Explorer, it doesn’t matter. If children get that love of reading, that’s what is really important. If they love literature, later on they will fall in love with work like Dickens and Tolstoy.”

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Lucinda Hawksley will launch the new series of talks at the newly refurbished chapel at Highgate Cemetery. She will discuss the life of Lizzie Siddal on February 11 and The Dickens Family and Highgate on February 13. Places can be reserved by emailing