The year gone by was the bicentenary of two Eminent Victorians—Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and Edward Lear (1812-1888). Interestingly both travelled in Italy at around the same time. Lear moved to Italy at the age of 25, in the year 1837, the year of the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria, (to whom, incidentally, Lear gave drawing ‘lessons’)—died at San Remo in Italy in 1888. Lear’s Illustrated Excursions in Italy was published in 1846, based on his travels from 26 July 1843 to around September of the year. Dickens’s Pictures from Italy was originally published in volume form by Bradbury & Evans, London in May 1846, after appearing intermittently in the Daily News, London from 21 January to 11 March 1846.
‘On a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four …….’ Dickens set off from Paris to Genoa via Chalons, Avignon, Marseilles. In other words, within a year of each other, the two gentlemen of London not only travelled in Italy but left for posterity, their impressions in the form of a travelogue, publishing their accounts in the same year. In Lear’s case the text was enlivened by the lithographic drawings from his own sketches. In fact, the raison d’être for his travels was the illustrations.
In his preface to Volume 1 of Illustrated Excursions in Italy, Lear writes: ‘the drawings with which the following pages are illustrated are, I believe, the first hitherto given of a part of central Italy as romantic as it is unfrequented’. Lear was, in point of fact the very first ‘Crazy old Englishman Oh!’ to visit some of those places. He went on to say that the literary portions (the text, so to speak) were published with little alterations from the journals that he kept during his ‘rambles’. Dickens’s travelogues have the same freshness and immediacy: Lear’s ‘pictures’ are not just those of a greatly gifted landscape artist but really and truly act as an aide-memoires ‘referencing sounds, feelings and weather’.
The artwork in the book under review by Livia Signorini, while purporting to be ‘in the nature of a dialogue with the text of Charles Dickens,’ (a dialogue, we submit, is a two way process/communication. Is it really possible with a dead author or even a live text?) using collage to ‘create images that resonate from his words’ are, we feel, finally, more layered, as the artist herself, puts it, with her own ‘associations of place, time and travel’ . While the artwork and the coloured collages are very beautiful they are not really, nor nearly, as evocative of the grandeur and glory that was Italy, or the squalor, poverty and decay, that Dickens described in his ‘dream like, elegiac’ way, to quote V. Geetha in her editor’s note to the book.
While Lear travelled mostly on foot (with a camp bed) Dickens travelled much more comfortably in a coach, even including a brief train journey. Both writers descant delightfully on the flies and the fleas they encountered on their tr)avels. Dickens writing about the ‘Villa Bagnerello’ or the ‘Pink Jail’: ‘It sounds romantic, but Signor B is a butcher hard by’ in Albaro, a suburb of Genoa ‘…. as for the flies you don’t mind them. Nor the fleas, whose size is prodigious, and whose name is Legion, and who populate the coach-house to that extent that I daily expect to see the Carriage going off bodily drawn by myriads of industrious fleas in harness ….’ Lear wrote, ‘There was no lock to our door. All night long, two or three frantic hens kept tearing round the rooms, and would by no means be expelled…… Vermin of two species, (politely called B flats and F sharps) worried us beyond endurance’. Both Dickens and Lear seem to have shared their rooms with persistent and perpetual poultry of all persuasions.
‘I strolled away from Genoa on the 6th of November (writes Dickens) bound for a good many places (England among them) but first for Piacenza …..A brown decayed, old town, Piacenza is…. with the double curse of laziness and poverty; the dirtiest of children play …. in the feeblest of gutters; and the gauntest of dogs trot in and out of the dullest of archways…. I became aware that I have never known till now, what it is to be lazy.’ Too true, Dickens, all his life was the most industrious, hard working and hyper- active of all writers we have ever known till the moment he died of overexertion and exhaustion brought on by his incredibly gruelling and dramatic public readings of his works. When Dickens started on his Italian adventures with his large family in attendance, (though in V. Geetha’s edition, the family is never on stage) he was already the author of Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge and the insulting (to Americans!) American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)—that powerfully satiric novel about selfishness, hypocrisy and financial speculation (‘the Eden Land Corporation’—a fraudulent scam redolent to us in India in this glorious season of land scams). Dickens had added with this novel, Pecksniff and Sarah Gamp to his immortal gallery of ‘characters’.
Dickens had arrived (on the world’s stage and in Italy) in more ways than one. Yet none of these ‘characters’ are to be met with in this edition under review. Ms V. Geetha has ‘extracted’ (while an extract from a book is perfectly permissible—‘extracted’ is a rather infelicitous choice of word—one thinks of coal (of recent notoriety) or a decayed tooth), ‘those passages that express the dream like, elegiac and fanciful quality of Dickens’ travelogue’ leaving out ‘his ire over the Catholic Church and its functionaries’. Actually, there is a good deal of it to be read between the lines even in this edition. Also, ‘left out are those “set” comic episodes—which are as much exercises in literary composition as anything else….’ This reviewer sorely misses the ‘Davis chapter’ etc., etc. As for literary composition, we find evidence of the germs of much of his later writing even here. To cite a few—in his travels in Avignon he visits the chamber of torture where the Executioner of the Inquisition ‘flung those who were past all further torturing’. Here we meet a truly Dickensian ‘Character’—an old swarthy woman… ‘an energetic she-devil… alight and flaming’, to whom he gives the name, ‘The Goblin of Avignon’ who seems to be the precursor of those sinister tricoteuses (‘the knitters’) of the French Revolution who while they went on with their tricotage (knitting) encouraged the leaders in their blood-thirsty excesses—‘the Furies of the guillotine’—Madame Defarge). Elsewhere, Dickens’s love of the macabre and his fondness for the melodramatic expresses itself in his experiences in ‘more solitary, more depopulated, more deserted, old Ferrara, than any city of the solemn brotherhood….. If I had been murdered there in some former life, I could not have seemed to remember the place more thoroughly, or with a more emphatic chilling of the blood; ….. It was best to see it, without a single figure in the picture; a City of the Dead without one solitary survivor…. I had been travelling, for some days, resting very little in the night, and never in the day… In short, I had that incoherent but delightful jumble in my brain, which travellers are apt to have, and are indolently willing to encourage.’
And thus to Venezia—An Italian Dream; ‘for the greatness of the city was no more, as I have said. Indeed, it seemed a very wreck found drifting on the sea …’ This about the Mistress of the Adriatic. Lear wrote of Venice —‘Now, as you will ask me my impressions of Venice, I may as well shock you a good thumping shock at once by saying, I don’t care a bit for it & never wish to see it again…. Canaletto’s pictures please me far better, inasmuch as I cannot in them smell these most stinking canals. Ugh!’ Another description, prefiguring the omnipresent fog in London in Bleak House—‘But close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town: crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful; coiled round and round it, in many folds, like an old serpent’ ….. Venice, where in the errant fancy of his dream he saw old Shylock and Desdemona and ‘Shakespeare’s spirit was abroad upon the waters…’. Pisa where he ‘saw a nervous traveller hold on to the Tower involuntarily, after glancing down, as if he had some idea of propping it up….If Pisa be the 7th wonder of the world in right of its Tower it may claim to be, at least, the second or third in right of its beggars…’ ‘The beggars seem to embody all the trade and enterprise of Pisa’. His disappointment when ‘the Eternal City appeared, at length, in the distance; it looked like—I am half afraid to write the word—like LONDON!!!’ One day he went to Albano, 14 miles distant from Rome on the ancient Appian Way and saw ‘miles of ruin. The unseen larks above us… had their nests in ruin; and the fierce herdsmen… were housed in ruin…’. The desolate Campagna appeared to him as a ‘broken hour-glass of Time’ and he looked ‘upon a ruined world’. As always, ‘the horror, the horror’ appealed to and invariably drew Dickens. He could never get through a day without going back again and again to the Coliseum ‘to the old mythology and old butchery of Rome, in the nature of the fierce and cruel Roman people…to look upon it (the Coliseum) now, a ruin. GOD be thanked: a ruin!’ He thinks ‘a proud Church and a decaying ruin—good emblems of Rome….’ Then on to ‘Naples with its islands, and Vesuvius spouting fire’ to Capri, to Pompeii where he feels, ‘the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer (Mount Vesuvius) making this quiet picture in the Sun.’ Finally, Florence and ‘cheerful Tuscany’.
Lastly, ‘Let us part from Italy with all its miseries and wrongs, affectionately, in our admiration of the beauties, natural and artificial…. a people naturally well disposed, and patient and sweet tempered … Years of neglect, oppression and misrule, have been at work, to change their nature and reduce their spirit… but the good that was in them ever, is in them yet, and a noble people may be, one day, raised up from these ashes…..’
Thus ends page 126 of the book reminding us of T.S. Eliot’s dictum, ‘But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal ; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom and the horror, and the glory’. Dickens does just that and ever the optimistic Liberal, ends by saying: ‘And let us not remember Italy the less regardfully, because, in every fragment of her fallen Temples, and every stone of her deserted palaces and prisons, she helps to inculcate the lesson that the wheel of Time is rolling for an end and that the world is in all great essentials, better, gentler, A more forbearing and more hopeful, as it rolls!!.’
Kanak Seshadri is a Professor of English from the Centre for Management Studies, Bangalore.