DescriptionRome is Rome though it's never so Romely: Dickens and the nineteenth century politics of leisure
‘There is no place in Europe where a travelling Englishman can make himself more thoroughly at home than at Rome.’ George Augustus Sala’s claim reflects the peculiar status Rome enjoyed amongst British travellers in the nineteenth century. The popular equation of British and Roman Empire meant that Italy’s capital was supposed to offer a kind of instant familiarity to the Briton abroad, affording him a home from home amidst the continent’s bad roads and ill-appointed inns.
It is surprising, then, that the Victorian period’s greatest novelist should express such disquiet in his accounts of the city. Neither in Pictures from Italy nor in Little Dorrit, the central focus for my paper, do Charles Dickens or his characters seem entirely at ease in their ancient surroundings. It is a discomfort that speaks to the alienation Dickens felt from the wealthy travellers who saw their privileged access to Italy and its cities threatened, over the course of the nineteenth century, by the burgeoning tourist industry. Conservative reaction to the flood of vulgar visitors onto the continent - and their predilection for publishing accounts of their experiences - informed the lukewarm response Pictures from Italy received on its initial publication. Dickens, acutely aware that he lacked a university education, could not fail to recognise that this disqualified him, for many commentators, as an interpreter of the Roman cityscape.
This paper will situate Dickens’s literary treatment of Rome in the context of this critical snobbery. It is no accident that Little Dorrit’s second book - ‘Riches’ - opens with the family crossing the Alps from Switzerland (early appropriated by Thomas Cook and his tourists) into Italy (which remained for decades a bastion of the travelling elite). Reading the Dorrits, in their uncertain financial situation, as emblematic of the newly moneyed middle classes - and comparing their travels to other fictional family excursions, in works by Thackeray, Mayhew and Frances Trollope - I will explore the way in which Dickens’s depiction of their experiences abroad reflects his awareness of their destination’s traditionally exclusive status and his attitude to the issue of leisure more generally.
Contextualising the discourse of leisure that runs throughout Little Dorrit with a discussion of Dickens’s previous forays into this field - his responses to the 1851 Exhibition, as well as his 1837 essay ‘Sunday Under Three Heads’ - I will argue that the novel presents a coherent argument for valuing the unselfconscious curiosity which characterises the new ‘professional tourist’ (embodied in Amy Dorrit, herself a travel writer), above the social conformity and self-serving exclusivity of the ‘classical traveller’, exemplified in the Eustace-toting Mrs General. I hope to show the significance of this contrast, not only throughout the plotting and characterisation of Little Dorrit itself, but as a wider instance of Dickens’s positive identification with the professional classes and the spirit of progress and enquiry which they represented; an identification balanced by contempt for the deliberate archaism of the aristocracy and its persevering attachment to rapidly crumbling relics like Rome.
|11 Sept 2009
|Nottingham, United Kingdom