'Dickens and Travel': Dickens Day 2011

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


Dickens in Rome: Little Dorrit 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. At the same time, this expectation of familiarity was decidedly founded in class: Italy was one of the last bastions of exclusivity in a continent rendered newly accessible by railways and package tours. It is no accident that, in Little Dorrit – the book on which this paper is centred – the family’s transition from poverty to wealth coincides, in the narrative, with their physical movement from Switzerland (favourite of the new tourist) into Italy.

This paper situates Dickens’s literary treatment of Rome in the context of the class discourse that sprang up around the ‘new tourism’ of the mid-nineteenth century. Conservative reaction to the flood of vulgar visitors onto the continent – and, especially, these visitors’ predilection for publishing accounts of their experiences – had informed the lukewarm response that Pictures from Italy received on its initial publication. Acutely aware that he lacked the classical education seen by many commentators as essential to the proper appreciation of the city, it is not surprising that Dickens’s accounts of Rome should read rather uncomfortably. Neither in Pictures from Italy, nor in Little Dorrit, do Charles Dickens or his characters seem entirely at ease in their ancient surroundings.

This paper will situate Dickens’s literary treatment of Rome in the context of this critical snobbery. Reading the Dorrits, in their uncertain financial situation, as emblematic of the newly moneyed middle classes, I will explore the way in which Dickens’s depiction of their experiences abroad reflects his awareness of their destination’s traditionally exclusive status. 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 an 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.
Period15 Oct 2011
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map


  • Dickens
  • tourism
  • Little Dorrit
  • Italy