London without Dickens would be a different place, but Dickens without London is unthinkable. His pilgrimages through the city – from his childhood walks to work at the infamous blacking factory, to his years of insomniac trekking through its streets – did more than provide him with backdrop. Dickens stumbled, possibly literally, into the connection the mind makes between words and walking: movement forward and lines across the page. London – perhaps the only subject vast enough for his non-stop imagination – was both food and fuel for Dickens' writing, and the means by which he could bring it into being. He walked out the plots of his books on London's pavements and studded them with the characters he shared those pavements with. To Dickens, London was paper; he himself the travelling  nib of the pen.

The Museum of London's latest show, Dickens and London, solves the question of how to make an interesting exhibition about books by taking the words out of them. Extracts from Dickens' works are up there on the walls and in some cases dangling, letter by letter, from the ceiling. Visitors read them out to each other, people laugh – rather than the usual silence, this exhibition is lively with chat. It is divided, roughly, into what one might call chapters: Dickens and the theatre, for example, where the gaudy tinsel of the costumes, preserved in a charming series of contemporary decorated prints, suggests an intriguing parallel to the heightened realism of some of Dickens' minor characters. Another thought-provoking section, illuminated by some particularly well-chosen quotes, deals with the coming of the railway. The visitor, however, is free to make their way around the show in any order or direction they please. At one point you find yourself in a grand Victorian parlour, with a very neat bit of counterpoint displayed before you. Dickens' aim in his writing was so often to create and encourage the kind of civic and domestic ideal the parlour seems to represent – secure, virtuous, middle-class – yet what do we treasure him for? The grime, the smoke, the darkness, the dirt, the orphaned and the disposessed, the drunks, cheats, thugs and psychos who would have picked such a room bare to its floorboards without a thought. Dickens is one of those writers whose writing fights with itself – perhaps part of the reason it still contains such energy, such inner life for us today.

The exhibition makes the connection between Dickens' surroundings and his writing explicit from the start. Walking in, the visitor is introduced to people in Dickens' life – his family, his friends, his fellow writers – at the same time as to groups of characters from his novels. It is a theatrical show, in the best sense (Dickens would most certainly have approved), with some very clever segues between environment and writing, and an exceptionally wide-ranging set of items on display: everything from the expected (plenty of paintings, photographs and maps, any number of objects from the period, to set the scene) to the jaw-dropping – a door from Newgate gaol, for example. Dickens' writing desk from his study at Gad's Hill House (rather a coup for the Museum, one imagines, to have landed the loan of this) sits beneath a wonderful Terry Gilliam-style animation of the figures from R.W. Buss' 1875 oil-painting of Dickens at said desk, in said study. The painting Dickens' Dream hangs to the right; the desk itself has a substantial writing-slope and plenty of knee-room; the animation above provokes shameless giggling, but is also an example of the Museum of London's praiseworthy use of new media, to open up its collections. My companion, who hails from the United States (a country that both fascinated Dickens, and infuriated him for its cavalier way with his copyrights), and who knows a thing or two about museums himself, was mightily struck. This is not a show aimed at the academic or Dickensian purist – but they should most certainly visit too.

Of course, any exhibition related to Dickens over the next 12 months – 2012 being the bicentenary of his birth – will have its visitor figures boosted by TV adaptations. The BBC's adaptation of Great Expectations has just ended, and three of Miss Havisham's costumes float above the queue for tickets; the Dickens addicts among us have a new dramatisation of Dickens' unfinished Jacobean tragedy, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to look forward to. Both of these novels feature in this exhibition: the latter as the entry into the world of 19th-century Limehouse opium dens; the former as a stepping stone, via Magwitch's final plunge into the Thames, into the portion of the exhibition dealing with the river itself. One of the few actual books in the show is Dickens' bound original manuscript for Great Expectations, displayed open at that very scene. The fluency with which Dickens fills a page could make another writer's heart sink, even now.

Perhaps the greatest surprise, however, is the fact that Dickensian London, as you might think of it upon entering the show, and as we imagine the writer creating it, didn't exist as such for Dickens at all.  The London he walked around was not the London of Dickens – that could only come after. It was the London of the Georgians, in its small cottages; the London of the Tudors, in its inns and taverns; the London, even, of Chaucer, in the worst of its alleyways. A watercolour of 'Jacob's Island', so called in Bermondsey – one of London worst rookeries and the setting for Bill Sykes' death in Oliver Twist – shows a galleried river frontage of jutting Elizabethan first floors and uneven walkways, warped by river-damp and time, yet so clearly Renaissance one might be looking down a muddy Venetian canal. Dickens’s Victorian London, the exhibition book by Alex Werner and Tony William (there is no catalogue as such), uses some 200 Victorian photographs to show a London that is in fact anything but, and fights for space in the bookshop with a number of titles telling the same story of writer and city. There is also an app, Dickens: Dark London, cunningly released in Dickensian monthly installments, and, one hopes, as enthralling to a younger audience as Dickens' words are to the older; but one of the finest examples of the use of new media in the show must be the final exhibit, which for visitors is the show's soundtrack. William Raban's film plays Dickens' description of his night-time wanderings against a filmscape of the same journey through the city today, and is typical of the empathetic, artful, well-crafted, well-thought-out approach this show takes to its subject.

Dickens and London, at Museum of LondonErato reviews Dickens and London at the Museum of London.4