Charles Dickens, On travel

Charles Dickens, On travel

On travel bookcover (Hesperus Press, via LibraryThing)

In the 3rd essay in Hesperus Press’s lovely little volume On travel, which comprises a selection of Dickens’ travel essays, Dickens (1812-1870) makes a reference to Laurence Sterne’s character Yorick. In one of those lovely bits of reading synchronicity, Hungry Like the Wolf posted last week on Laurence Sterne’s A sentimental journey through France and Italy which features said Yorick. In it Yorick lists various types of travellers including Idle travellers, Vain travellers, and Sentimental travellers. Yorick’s type that best suits Dickens would, I think, be his Inquisitive type. However, I think Yorick needed another category to describe a traveller like Dickens: the Observant traveller. (Hmm…I wrote this before checking out the Introduction by Pete Orford. In the first para he praises Dickens’ “talent of observation”. Great minds, and all that!)

There are 6 essays in this slim but rather gorgeously produced volume – don’t you love the allusion to the “armchair traveller” on the cover?:

  • The last cab driver and the first omnibus cab (1836)
  • The passage out (1841)
  • By Verona, Mantua and Milan, across the Pass of the Simplon into Switzerland (1843)
  • A flight (1851)
  • The Calais Night Mail (1863)
  • Some account of an extraordinary traveller (1850)

Reading these reminds me yet again why I love Dickens. I enjoy his acute observation of humankind and his sense of humour. He makes me laugh. Regularly. And then there is his versatile use of the English language. The man can write.

Four of the essays describe train and boat travel, including to America, and to and through Europe. His descriptions of the actual experience of travel and of the various passengers (such as the Compact Enchantress, Monied Interest and the Demented Traveller) he meets on the way are highly evocative. You feel you are on the trains and boats with him because he captures that sense of being tossed about in the sea and of rushing in a train through landscapes and – “bang” (his word) – through stations. But it’s not all sensory – as engaging as that is. There is satire here too – against others, and against himself. For example, in “The Calais Night Mail” he sends up his own love-hate relationship with Calais as well as the behaviour of an English traveller who “thinks it a quite unaccountable thing that they don’t keep ‘London time’ on a French railway”. (It was ever thus, eh?)

The thing about his writing is its diversity – he mixes up his rhythm; he uses allusions, irony and metaphor; he plays with tense and punctuation; and he uses repetition, to name just a few of the “tricks” in his writer’s bag. Just look at the variety in the following examples.

A wickedly satirical description of a man who was transported twice to Australia:

If Mr Barker can be fairly said to have had any weakness in his earlier years, it was an amiable one – love, love in its most comprehensive form – a love of ladies, liquids and pocket handkerchiefs. It was no selfish feeling; it was not confined to his own possessions… (“The last cab driver and the first omnibus cab”)

On a rough crossing to Calais:

I am bumped rolled gurgled washed and pitched into Calais Harbour… (“The Calais Night Mail”)

A description of the Demented Traveller:

Faculties of second Englishman entirely absorbed in hurry. Plunges into the carriage, blind. Calls out of the window concerning his luggage, deaf. (“A flight”)

And then this little pointed comment written in 1863 but alluding to an earlier trip in 1843:

and I recognise the extremely explosive steamer in which I ascended the Mississippi when the American civil war was not, and only its causes were. (“The Calais Night Mail”)

Dickens was, as we realise from the last essay in the collection, more than aware of the horrors of slavery, not to mention the plight of “the fast-declining Indians”. His willingness to express such awareness did not always endear him to Americans but, as Pete Orford writes in the Introduction, Dickens was equally prepared to be satirical of home as abroad.

These essays provide a fascinating insight into how Dickens viewed his world and the people in it, and present wonderful exemplars of his writing. They also demonstrate how widely travelled he was, which, by broadening his understanding of humanity, must have fed his fictional muse too. Orford concludes his Introduction with some lines from the last essay. I can’t really think of a better way to end this than to repeat some of them too. Dickens wrote:

The more man knows of man, the better for the common brotherhood among us all. (“Some account of an extraordinary traveller”)

Some of Dickens’ words and allusions (though there are “notes” in this edition) may be a little obscure now, and some sentence structures are a little complicated to our modern eyes, but if you have any interest in Dickens or travel writing in general, you will enjoy this. I certainly did.

Charles Dickens
On travel
Hesperus Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781843916123
(Review copy supplied by Hesperus Press via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)

NOTE: I must apologise for once again hitting the Publish button too early and sending some half-finished gobbledy-gook to your various readers and email accounts. I should either take Tony’s advice and draft in Word or adopt Farnoosh’s recent “Slow down” admonition (to herself), because clearly I’m not getting it right at present! I beg your forgiveness.

30 thoughts on “Charles Dickens, On travel

  1. Forgiveness given though hardly necessary. Wouldn’t you know that what you describe here is indeed one of my faux-pas habits that I was thinking about when I wrote my post on Slowing Down. You are so very kind to reference it, and gosh I can’t wait to get into Dickens!!! Thanks for the dose of inspiration.

    • LOL Farnoosh, I’m glad I’m not the only one! (And very glad to reference a great blogger’s good post!). I’m also glad it’s inspired you to get into Dickens. I have by no means read all of him but I always enjoy him. Bleak House was my last novel of his and it still resonates with me.

  2. This sounds like exactly the kind of travel writing (and travel living!) that I enjoy and aspire to. I should probably finish the last two-thirds of Bleak House first, though… 😀

  3. Love this book Sue! Must add it to my list. It sounds wonderful.

    Not sure if you know that I did 13 mths of a PhD in English on Dickens and Empire and Commodites. Health got the better of me and it feels like too much hard work to formally continue it now, but I still do love Dickens.

    My parents and parents-in-law gave me all 13 volumes of his letters. A real treasure trove!

  4. Hannah: Yes, you should finish BH and yes, I think it is exactly the sort of expressive travel writing you would like.

    Steph: No, I didn’t know that though I had gathered that you’d done further study. Sounds like a fascinating subject, too. Was this the migraines? Anyhow, what a shame you had to stop but look, you now have a blog to explore your literary (and other enthusiasms) to your heart’s delight. I do want to read much more Dickens as I’ve only read about 5 of the 14 (is it?) novels.

  5. This sounds great. I love reading old travelogues – it’s sometimes more insightful than many historical accounts. I’m a huge fan of Dickens too although I always seem to put off his books. I’m always wonderfully surprised when I start a new Dickens how much I enjoy it. I think many people have the idea that he’s a stuffy, old English bore but his talent in writing tension and suspense is underrated. Out of the books I’ve read, I love ‘Great Expectations’ the most.

  6. All the very best bloggers press the wrong button from time to time … ;-)!
    Love Dickens, but have somehow missed his journalism. So delighted by this post. Those descriptions of eg the sad recidivist with his ‘love of ladies, liquor and pocket handkerchiefs’ (the last item the real clincher), and the demented one, barging about in the carriage like a show calf in a trailer are vintage Dickens.
    Thank you so much for a tantalising intro. and recommendation.
    PS For my money the top three are (in order): ‘Our Mutual Friend’, ‘Bleak House’ & ‘Little Dorrit.’

  7. Mae: Thanks. I rather like travel writing too and wish I had time to read more. Funnily Great expectations was my only hated Dickens – until a few years ago when I finally gave it another go and loved it. It’s not my favourite but it is definitely up there. You are right though that people are put off, without really giving him a go. Read on for my favourite …

    Minnie: Thanks for the understanding too – one does feel a bit of a fool, but I decided that bloggers are a friendly lot so I wouldn’t fret too much! I’m glad I introduced you to something new. I was thrilled when I “won” it through LibraryThing. I could have filled the post with more quotes as the essays are full of quotables! The Verona essay is full of refs to R&J and is a lot of fun. Glad to hear your recommendation for Our mutual friend as that’s my next cab off the rank. Not sure when I’ll get to it though. So far, Bleak House is my favourite.

  8. Hmm. I wonder if I’m an ‘idle traveller’? Certainly I expect someone else to make the beds and do the washing up, and preferably transport me round the place in a comfortable train…
    Lisa *tongue in cheek*

  9. I really wanted to win this book through LibraryThing! I’m glad that it doesn’t disappoint. I guess I should look for it and buy it now.

  10. Lisa: Glad you added the “tongue in cheek” cos I wouldn’t see you as idle – liking comfort perhaps, but idle never.

    Iris: Oh, I’m sorry you missed out but I was excited. It was my first Early Reviewers book … I hope I get more BUT I hope you do too! I don’t know about you in Europe but a lot of them aren’t available to us downunder.

  11. Your review is excellent, Whispering. And this is a bit of reading synchronicity. The parallels between the two books and the references to one in the other make me want to round out my travel writing experience. I am making note of it. The quotes you provide are excellent.

    My favorite Dickens is, easily, Great Expectations which, with the original ending, I enjoyed tremendously. The ending Dickens published at the behest of a friend ruins it. My understanding is that the friend felt the original ending was too harsh and the public would not like it, so he suggested a happy, tie-the-bow ending. The other Dickensian works I have read are A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.

    Recently, a friend informed me that she despised Dickens. His getting paid by the word for some of his work, it seems, was the defining insult. She surmised that the financial incentive led to unnecessarily bloated work. She was quite adamant and, as I had not read anything by him in a number of years, I couldn’t say much more than I had thoroughly enjoyed Great Expectations.

    Last, but not least, thanks for the link!

    • And, I have been amply rewarded by a throughful response, Kerry.

      As for travel writing, a standout for me is Flora Tristan’s Peregrination of a pariah (1838). I read it years and years ago. Perhaps I should read it again and blog it because it is an astonishing story of an astonishing woman (who was – later – Gauguin’s grandmother).

      And, as for your friend on Dickens, what can we say? I wonder how much she has read? I think the surprising thing that people don’t realise is how funny he is – even in the serious works the satire is there and you have to laugh.

    • Re. His getting paid by the word …

      This is a canard. He was not paid by the word. He was contracted to produce a certain number of installments — because he was being published serially — not a certain number of words. This was normal. Middlemarch was published in installments, so was Vanity Fair, so was Trollope. Television shows are produced under even tighter restrictions, but I’ve yet to see someone curl their lip and say they despise The Wire or Buffy or Twin Peaks or The Office or Kath and Kim because they had to fit into a seasonal schedule and plan their stories so that the same main characters appeared in every episode. This is nonsense. (I am aiming my irritation at your friend, by the way, not you.) And ideas about his bloatedness are exaggerated. He poured ideas onto the page, and he poured them in profusion — he is a generous, giving writer, a rare, pure writer, and a showman — he wrote a lot — this is not the same as writing bloated. If you’d read David Copperfield I’d quote the moment when a certain character dies, and ask you to look at the economy of effect and the intelligence of the psychology, but that would be a spoiler, so I’ll look in Great Expectations instead:

      Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
      “Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice …

      If you were in a trimming mood you could quibble over “vivid and broad” and substitute “was” for “seems to me to have been” but the language in this passage is not bloated. It’s all rhythm, information, and psychological suspense. He is not only giving us the facts of the scenery (dikes, cows, a churchyard) and the emotion of it (dark, raw, savage), he is also performing the most basic task of a storyteller: he is teasing us with what-happens-next. What is this event that is going to give the narrator an impression of the identity of things? And then — my God, who is this person with the terrible voice? Why is the boy crying? And so on. And look at the action there — the prose-camera swooping around the landscape, settling now on one thing, now on another, now, finally, zooming in on Pip, who is crying. Dickens spent his entire career pulling off effects like this: psychological, observant, active, all at once, with tremendous energy. He is in a category of his own. He is the Inimitable.

      • LOL DKS, now THAT’s a comment. Thanks so much for engaging. And actually, you are not even irritated with my friend but with my (blog) friend’s friend so I’m sure none of us here will be upset by your impassioned response. I was going to comment that he was paid the the traditional way for his times but you have done it far more eloquently. I like your notion of “prose-camera”. And, of course, I agree with what you say. He’s a great writer – even if his personage is somewhat problematical.

      • I hit ‘reply’ under her comment and it put me under you. Comments function, tsh.

        Re. … is somewhat problematical.

        It occurs to me that if Dickens-as-a-husband had been a character in one of Dickens’ own books, Dickens would have crucified him with indignation.

  12. What fun these essays sound! And I love the book cover. Dickens is great and I always forget that until I read him and then I wonder why I don’t read him more often. I think I have to find a way to fit some Dickens into my reading this year.

  13. DKS,

    I wish you had been there, the conversation could have been quite interesting. You have made a convincing case. Since reading Great Expectations, I have considered it a masterpiece and list it among my list of “all-time favorites”. Thanks for sharing that excellent passage. I was likely not sufficiently mature to appreciate all the elements you identify when I first read it, but the storytelling certainly gripped me. And then the humor. Dickens was incredibly witty, as I believe someone has pointed out.

    Anyway, I am happy to be set right and now feel I should pull Great Expectations down for another read through to make up for accepting my friend’s premise without challenge. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome. I’m happy to fizz and wave my hands around over Dickens. I keep seeing people online who call him bloated or wordy or slow or — something similar — and it makes me growl. I think some of us must have him fed to them at high school and then hate him forever after.

  14. Deane, you’ll never hear a word against Dickens from me! I read nearly all his novels as a teenager. My grandmother sent a lovely Odhams Press set from London in a *huge* box one Christmas, along with an equally nice set of mixed classics’ i.e. P&P, East Lynne, Lorna Doone etc, and I devoured the lot. I was narked when my parents gave the Dickens to my older sister when she left home, and subsequently outraged when she sold the set at an impecunious time in her life. I replaced them when I chose Dickens as a study author at uni and read them all again, some of them twice, with the result that my paperback copies fell apart – so I could not believe my luck when I discovered what I like to believe is the self-same set in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago. Only one of them is missing: A Tale of Two Cities, so I only have a horrid little paperback of that one. I still scour the shelves in bookshops in the hope that I’ll find it.
    My favourite is always the last one I read LOL!

  15. Kerry, Seems though, that YOU didn’t need to be put right but to have better ammunition for your friend, which you now have! Go forth and present your case next time that person crosses your path.

    DKS, First yes about Dickens-the-husband. (This might be cheeky but I did love Carey’s take in Jack Maggs). Secondly, the school stuff was what turned me off Great expectations. I was 14, my hardest year at school as I went to four high schools that year, so that may explain it. A couple of years later I loved (not surprisingly I suppose) A tale of two cities, and then was bowled over, at university by Dickens.

    Lisa, that’s what I say about Jane Austen. But I probably would say it about Dickens too as my current favourite does happen to be the last one I read (excluding these essays of course).

    • I never studied him at school. In fact I’ve never had an opportunity to study him anywhere, so I’m humming, “Oh, ooh, wow, ha!” when I see that both of you (here I point to Lisa too — see, my finger, I point) were reading him at uni. My parents owned a Reader’s Digest abridged version of Oliver Twist, and I think that was the first Dickens I read. The second might have been an unabridged Expectations, and I really settled into it, I remember, when he goes to court to be apprenticed to Jo, and the people waiting around outside the courtroom decide that he must have been arrested for a terrible crime, and that he has criminal features, and then one of them gives him a booklet telling you what to do if they decide to hang you. I think that was the moment when I decided that Dickens was funny.

  16. This little book looks just up my street so thanks for bringing it your readers’ attention. What an interesting set of journeys that is. I wonder how the Calais Night Mail compares with my own journey this week from Dieppe to Newhaven on a rather nice modern ship with a spotlessly clean cabin and contemporary catering. As for publishing in error – I’m always correcting my posts and didn’t even consider the effect on my readers until reading your final paragraph.

    • You’ll love the book then Tom – you can compare A flight with Calais Night Mail and then your own experience.

      LOL, I love your comment about always correcting your posts. Welcome back from Germany.

  17. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: June 3, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  18. What a lovely find this post was….even though my comments are a few months out of date!

    An expat Aussie, I now live in China and with time on my hands for the first time in my working ife, I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do – study Dickens’ works. An online course at the University of Exeter was just the thing, and this week we studied both Calais Night mail, and A Flight as an introduction to his short fiction.
    Both wonderful pieces and with such expressive characterisations. I felt seasick and simultaneously cold and wet reading Calais Night mail, but laughed out loud at the pineapples and travellers like the Compact Enchantress in A Flight.

    I can also recommend ‘Refreshments for Travellers’ in the same vein.

    Thanks again!

    • Well Fiona, I’m glad you commented, late or otherwise. In fact, it’s rather nice receiving comments down the track don’t you think? Good for you doing some Dickens’ study and glad my little post added to your enjoyment of the essays. I have located Refreshments for travellers, and will try to read it in the next few days.

      How many of the novels have you done, and do you have a favourite?

      BTW, before I met him, my husband (also an Aussie) did his Masters at the University of Exeter. Small world eh?

  19. I really must get this. I have his “Night Walks” essays but a couple of them are a bit… stodgy because they’re very political and I have no understanding of the politics of that era. These look more fun.

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