Night Walks – Charles Dickens, Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’
Penguin do a couple of great lines in quirky short books called ‘Great Ideas’ [eds: we review another here]. About one hundred authors are showcased and, from what I can tell, the series is aimed at introducing the reader to an essay or a passage from an extremely famous writer/politician/philosopher/champion of the arts. Some books are a more natural fit than others. Engels’ and Marx’s Communist Manifesto fits the 100-200 page bill perfectly. There is, however, a danger that a reader might approach this literary fast-food and then believe themself to be familiar with the author. This is likely to end in disappointment bearing in mind the collection of contributors range from Kant to Rousseau, Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky. Gaining familiarity, confidence and enjoyment from these gods takes a rather more sustained effort. That isn’t to say that fast food isn’t enjoyable.
It was seeing the photo above, a study of night time London in the 1920s which encouraged me to seek out Dickens’ Night Walks. I never really need much convincing where Dickens is concerned. He is the author of one of my favourite books – Great Expectations – and his writing has a conversational style which, to me, sounds like a quirky uncle time-travelling from the mid 19th Century to tell you a story. Furthermore, whilst his English is obviously not modern I never find it old-fashioned, which makes for a more relaxed read when compared with other literary greats.
Night Walks is a rather awkwardly cobbled together collection of commentaries by Dickens on the London of his day. The best parts are invariably the chapters which chart the walks which Dickens took during the nights where he lost his battle with insomnia, hence the name of the book I suppose. There is also a wonderful chapter where Dickens recounts a time when as an 8-year-old he spends a day lost in the City pondering what to do with his life and how to find his fame and fortune. Following in the footsteps of Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is entertained at length. It might be complete fabrication, but it makes for a good tale nonetheless. There are also passages on the prevalence of betting shops, regular state funerals, and other peculiarities of the time which I found less interesting. Nonetheless, there is some genius about this book and it has little to do with the excellence of the writing or the writer.
One of the marvellous things about London is that the streets and the boroughs are unchanging. The British capital has never enjoyed/suffered a major reworking at the hands of a revolutionary band, an occupying power or any other force for radical change. You and I can walk the streets as Dickens once did, you and I can reconstruct the Limehouse, Whitechapel, Covent Garden or The Borough of the time based on the information provided by Dickens. Whilst the docklands that Dickens talks of are now in the shadow of Canary Wharf, the old streets and yards remain. The abject poverty of Tower Hamlets may have been somewhat relieved and the streets paved, but it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination to mentally recreate Dickens’ London.
Indeed, it seems as though some of the author’s reflections on certain areas of the city are not too far removed from modern sentiment: “When I go into the City, now, it makes me sorrowful to think that I am quite an artful wretch. Strolling about it as a lost child, I thought of the British Merchant and the Lord Mayor, and was full of reverence. Strolling about it now, I laugh at the sacred liveries of state, and get indignant at the corporation as one of the strongest practical jokes of the present day.”
In Night Walks you have both a guide and a companion.