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Miss Havisham's makeover

London's Dickens Museum, once dusty and dismissed, gets a new look.

LONDON - Charles Dickens' London home has gone from bleak house to great expectations.

For years, the four-story brick rowhouse where the author lived with his young family was a dusty and slightly neglected museum, a mecca for Dickens scholars but overlooked by most visitors to London.

Now, after a $4.8 million makeover, it has been restored to bring the writer's world to life. The house reopened this month, and its director says it aims to look "as if Dickens had just stepped out."

"The Dickens Museum felt for many years a bit like Miss Havisham, covered in dust," said museum director Florian Schweizer, who slips references to Dickens' work seamlessly into his speech. Miss Havisham is the reclusive character central to the plot of Great Expectations.

Now, after a revamp code-named - inevitably - "Great Expectations," the house is transformed.

Or, Schweizer said recently, quoting that novel: "I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape."

Few authors remain as widely quoted, read, and adapted as Dickens is 200 years after his birth.

And no writer is more closely associated with London than Dickens, whose accounts of Victorian workhouses, debtors' prisons, and the urban poor embarrassed the establishment into acting to alleviate poverty.

'Learning center'

He lived all over the city in his impoverished youth and increasingly affluent adulthood, but the house at 48 Doughty St. in the Bloomsbury area of London is his only home in the city to survive.

Dickens lived in the house between 1837 and 1839, a short but fruitful period that saw the birth of his first two children.

Dickens leased the simple but elegant Georgian house, built in 1807, for 80 pounds a year.

The restored museum has all the modern trappings, including audio-guides, a "learning center," and a cafe. There also is a temporary exhibition of costumes from Mike Newell's new film adaptation of Great Expectations, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes.

But at its heart it is a house.

Upstairs are the drawing room where Dickens moved guests to laughter and tears with readings from his works - visitors can hear actor Simon Callow do the honors on recordings - and the bedroom where his sister-in-law Mary died at the age of 17, a tragedy that may have influenced the many death scenes in Dickens' novels.

'Like a home'

The rooms are furnished with Dickens' own possessions - his writing desk and chair, his wardrobe and shaving kit, copies of his books annotated in his cramped handwriting.

"We're trying to make it feel like a home," Schweizer said. "As if Dickens had just stepped out."

The museum does not skip over the darker periods of Dickens' life.

On the top floor, the former servants' quarters hold a set of bars from Marshalsea prison, where Dickens' father was imprisoned for his debts, and jars from the boot-polish factory where 12-year-old Charles was sent to work.

The experience of financial insecurity marked Dickens for life, and drove his workaholic quest for success. He wrote more than 20 books, had 10 children, traveled the world on lecture tours, and campaigned for social change until his death at 58 from a stroke in 1870.

The museum's directors have been criticized for shutting the facility during most of the bicentenary of Dickens' birth - and during the tourism bonanza that accompanied the London Olympics.

It reopened in time for a Dickensian Christmas, complete with readings, performances of A Christmas Carol, mulled wine, and mince pies.

The museum hopes to draw 45,000 visitors a year, a 50 percent rise on pre-refurbishment levels. Schweizer thinks Dickens' future has never been rosier.

As evidence, he held up a London newspaper proclaiming news of the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy under the headline "Kate Expectations."

"People still get all the references," he said.