Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens by Stephen Humble (1844).
1883 edition of Pictures from Italy.
In 1844, having already published some of his major works - The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Charles Dickens took a break from novel writing and began a tour of France and Italy, which is chronicled in his 1846 travelogue Pictures from Italy.

He begins by writing that this work is not intended to be a serious work on the history, religion, or government of Italy, rather, as he writes,
This Book is a series of faint reflections - mere shadows in the water - of places to which the imaginations of most people are attracted in a greater or less degree, on which mine had dwelt for years, and which have some interest for all. The greater part of the descriptions were written on the spot, and sent home, from time to time, in private letters. I do not mention the circumstance as an excuse for any defects they may present, for it would be none; but as a guarantee to the Reader that they were at least penned in the fulness of the subject, and with the liveliest impressions of novelty and freshness.  
If they have ever a fanciful and idle air, perhaps the reader will suppose them written in the shade of a Sunny Day, in the midst of the objects of which they treat, and will like them none the worse for having such influences of the country upon them.
1846 edition illustrated by Samuel Palmer.
What follows are a series of these reflections or sketches through France (Lyons, the Rhone, and Avignon) to Italy, visiting, among many other plaves, Geona, Parma, Bologna, Milan, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Pæstum, Vesuvius, and Florence. As promised, he writes of his own personal reflections - things he saw and experienced; places of literary interest - Boccaccio's house, Verona - the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (he observed, "I read Romeo and Juliet in my own room at the inn that night - of course, no Englishman had ever read it there, before"), as well as visiting cathedrals, cafés, going on various walks in the cities and countryside and the like. He also writes of attending a beheading; one very gruesome part of Pictures from Italy. All in all, this personal account was insightful, but not greatly so. That said, it wasn't especially meant to be. I got the sense that it was more a collection of notes written up and published in book form; very exciting for the Dickens fan, less so for a lover of Italy, or, indeed, one seeking an introduction to Italy. This doesn't mean it's a lesser work, far from it, it's simply done from a different angle.

All in all, an interesting work, but not wholly enjoyable. I think some may disagree with me, but it didn't quite read like Dickens. The wit wasn't as strong, and those long, meandering sentences weren't there as much (mercifully, for some readers!). Because I'm so used to those endless sentences, it seemed a little abrupt, and the whole work had an air of disappointment, sometimes vague, sometimes more explicit. On Rome, for example, he wrote,
It was no more my Rome: the Rome of anybody’s fancy, man or boy; degraded and fallen and lying asleep in the sun among a heap of ruins: than the Place de la Concorde in Paris is. A cloudy sky, a dull cold rain, and muddy streets, I was prepared for, but not for this: and I confess to having gone to bed, that night, in a very indifferent humour, and with a very considerably quenched enthusiasm.
A paragraph later, writing on St. Peter's, Dickens observed,
It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains - so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful - nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing.
I believe Pictures from Italy was written at a rather difficult time in Dickens' marriage, and I think that comes through. Some kind of unhappiness, at least, or discontentment is evident, which, on the whole, left me feeling a little flat when I finished it. Nevertheless, there's some very vivid descriptions and most certainly worth looking at. This short work (my Penguin edition was 187 pages) is not the only travel book by Charles Dickens. There's also American Notes (1842) and The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (with Wilkie Collins, 1857), if not some others I've missed, and I'm most interested to read those, and not just to see how the tone compares.

To finish with - first an apology - I do hate writing of disappointment in books, especially on favourite authors! But I was curious about the book and did want to report back on it. Anyway, on a high note: I found some lovely engravings by Samuel Palmer to end with (taken from the 1846 edition published by Bradbury & Evans):


  1. Interesting ........ I always find Dickens novels so overdone that it might be refreshing to hear more of his true voice. He has a book about visiting America, doesn't he? I think he wasn't impressed with it, so it may make for an interesting read.

    I can't wait to see what's up for you next (other than Metamorphoses)!

    1. Yes, American Notes - I don't think he was impressed either, but I've not read it yet. Got it on my TBR pile for this year! :)

      As for other plans - Metamorphoses of course, and a LOT of Victorian stuff for June and July - can't wait! Got a good summer of reading ahead :)

  2. I've been wanting to read this book for a while, seeing as I generally enjoy travel writing. It is a tricky genre, though, especially because it's 'realistic' (although how much fiction crept into the final product is almost always impossible to say), and I doubt that many authors' travel memoirs would be quite as compelling and enjoyable as their fiction! It is interesting that Dickens' personal life can be gleaned from the text, and for a biographer of Dickens I imagine it could be quite useful.

    1. Definitely, although I know very little about the life of Charles Dickens. I must get round to reading a biography! But yes, just from this and a tiny bit of background reading I've learned quite a lot.

      I've not read many travel books before, but this year I'm really getting into them. So far my favourite has to be Jerome K Jerome :) I've got Flaubert in Egypt planned for later in the year, so looking forward to that, and American Notes by Dickens, which should in the very least be insightful!


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