Night Walks by Charles Dickens.
"Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise."
So begins Night Walks by Charles Dickens, the thirteenth chapter of The Uncommercial Traveller, which is a collection of essays and sketches written in the late 1850s, around the time he was writing Great Expectations. Quite what this "distressing impression" was that caused Dickens' insomnia I'm unsure, but it's been said this was perhaps related to the breakdown of his marriage and his relationship with his mistress Ellen Ternan. Whatever the case, Night Walks is a fascinating essay on London nightlife.
Walking around London in the middle of the night would have been both very interesting and very dangerous for, as Dickens shows, though there were less people on the streets they were by no means unoccupied. He begins with the homeless, or "houselessness" as it is referred to.
The month was March, and the weather damp, cloudy, and cold. The sun not rising before half-past five, the night perspective looked sufficiently long at half-past twelve: which was about my time for confronting it.
At this time the public houses were turning out their lamps and tossing "the last brawling drunkards into the street", a form of entertainment for the 'houseless'. The odd brawl may take place and the police may be called, providing a brief extension of entertainment, but as Dickens' notes "the peace was seldom violently broken". A coach may rattle along, a drunk man perhaps would be joined by another drunk man "to fraternise or fight", and Dickens and the other night walkers devised a classification system:
... the thin-armed, puff-faced, leaden-lipped gin-drinker, and encountered a rarer specimen of a more decent appearance, fifty to one but that specimen was dressed in soiled mourning.
Eventually though, after fits of "tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep", London did sleep and there was little else to do but walk.
Walking the streets under the pattering rain, Houselessness would walk and walk and walk, seeing nothing but the interminable tangle of streets, save at a corner, here and there, two policemen in conversation, or the sergeant or inspector looking after his men. Now and then in the night--but rarely--Houselessness would become aware of a furtive head peering out of a doorway a few yards before him, and, coming up with the head, would find a man standing bolt upright to keep within the doorway`s shadow, and evidently intent upon no particular service to society.Dickens describes the atmosphere -
... in a ghostly silence suitable to the time, Houselessness and this gentleman would eye one another from head to foot, and so, without exchange of speech, part, mutually suspicious. Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts, and by-and-by the houseless shadow would fall upon the stones that pave the way to Waterloo-bridge...
|'The Silent Highway Man' from Punch magazine (July 1858).|
His thoughts turn very dark, there's talk of a murdered man, and he writes of the bridge and the Thames:
But the river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.
Time moves forward, and Dickens writes of the empty theatres standing alone at 4 o' clock.
With a dim lantern in my hand, I groped my well-known way to the stage and looked over the orchestra--which was like a great grave dug for a time of pestilence--into the void beyond. A dismal cavern of an immense aspect, with the chandelier gone dead like everything else, and nothing visible through mist and fog and space, but tiers of winding-sheets. The ground at my feet where, when last there, I had seen the peasantry of Naples dancing among the vines, reckless of the burning mountain which threatened to overwhelm them, was now in possession of a strong serpent of engine-hose, watchfully lying in wait for the serpent Fire, and ready to fly at it if it showed its forked tongue. A ghost of a watchman, carrying a faint corpse candle, haunted the distant upper gallery and flitted away.
And from the theatres, past Newgate Prison (featured in a number of Dickens' novels, and indeed Chaucer's The Cook's Tale from The Canterbury Tales and Defoe's Moll Flanders), the bank of the Thames, and on to Billingsgate market, then King's Bench Prison where he considers the case of Dry Rot in men. From there to Bethlehem Hospital, Westminster, Covent Garden Market, and then finally the railway, where the essay ends:
Now, too, the conscious gas began to grow pale with the knowledge that daylight was coming, and straggling workpeople were already in the streets, and, as waking life had become extinguished with the last pieman`s sparks, so it began to be rekindled with the fires of the first street-corner breakfast-sellers. And so by faster and faster degrees, until the last degrees were very fast, the day came, and I was tired and could sleep.
And it is not, as I used to think, going home at such times, the least wonderful thing in London, that in the real desert region of the night, the houseless wanderer is alone there. I knew well enough where to find Vice and Misfortune of all kinds, if I had chosen; but they were put out of sight, and my houselessness had many miles upon miles of streets in which it could, and did, have its own solitary way.
It is a remarkable essay, haunting in fact, and an insightful and valuable depiction of London late at night. Times certainly have changed in the cities; they say New York is the city that never sleeps but I imagine it's true of London and a great many other major cities across the world. I do love Dickens, and this essay is one of the many reasons why.
Night Walks was my 11th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: My Country Right or Left by George Orwell.