Charles Dickens, On travel
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.
Hesperus Press, 2010
(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.