“In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights and the remnants of nightlife, London is an alien city, especially if you are strolling through its lanes and thoroughfares alone,” writes Matthew Beaumont in the introduction to his Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, out now from Verso Books. Well, do you know your city at night? And, if not: do you know it at all?
Chaucer and Shakespeare, Johnson and Blake, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Dickens — all were nighttwalkers. And the joy of Beaumont’s book is the way it illuminates both literature and urban politics through the splendors and panics of their nighttime journeys. It’s a story that paradoxically meanders with a purpose, like a walk to nowhere in particular, from “the Middle Ages to the height of the gaslight era in the mid-nineteenth century.”
In the below excerpt, we learn about Charles Dickens’ maniacal nighttwalks through London and Paris, and the effect it likely had on his novels.
In his delightful and profoundly insightful monograph on Dickens, [G.K.] Chesterton argued that the novelist’s originality and genius resided in the fact that he possessed, ‘in the most sacred and serious sense of the term, the key of the street’:
Few of us understand the street. Even when we step into it, as into a house or a room of strangers. Few of us see through the shining riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong to the street only — the street-walker or the street-Arab, the nomads who, generation after generation, have kept their ancient secrets in the full blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of us know even less. The street at night is a great house locked up. But Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street. He could open the inmost door of his house – the door that leads into that secret passage which is lined with houses and roofed with stars.
Chesterton’s emphasis on the importance to Dickens of the street at night was perceptive. Dickens was quite as interested in the nomads that occupied the nocturnal city – the streetwalkers and the nightwalkers – as in those who occupied the diurnal one. He wanted to understand those who kept their ancient secrets beneath the cold light of the moon as well as the full blaze of the sun. Indeed, he was himself – in an ‘amateur way’, to use a characteristic formulation – one of these nomadic people. It was in the streets at night, and among its strange folk, that he sought the solution not only to the riddle of the modern city but to his own inscrutable, often secretive, existence.
It was probably in the late 1830s and early 1840s that Dickens first regularly walked at night in London. These were the years, so the historian Joachim Schlör claims, when night in the European metropolis first came to represent a distinctive challenge both for those who policed it and for the bourgeois imagination itself. From roughly 1840, faced with fears that emerged as a result of the rise of the so-called dangerous classes, ‘the complete city-dweller [had] to learn to master the night’. Schlör’s claim that, after this time, ‘night is more than simply a darker version of the day’, seems exaggerated.23 In the city, night had for centuries been socially, psychologically and even ontologically different to the day, as the career of the common nightwalker and his or her descendants indicated. But he is nonetheless right to emphasize a shift at this time, on the grounds that the night became a pressing social problem in the increasingly conflicted and contradictory centres of industrial capitalism.
As a young man, Dickens regularly strolled in the streets at night for purely companionable or sociable purposes. In his biography of Dickens, Fred Kaplan observes that in the late 1830s Dickens often socialized with Forster and their friend Daniel Maclise, and that together they frequently amused themselves with ‘dinners and drinks in city and county inns, rapid overnight trips to Kent, late-night walks through London streets, cigars, brandy, and conversation’. In this guise, exchanging ‘elaborate badinage, jokes about women, about eccentricities, about escapades’, they are not unlike Tom, Jerry and Logic in Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) This is Dickens the genial roisterer, who inhabited the populous, glittering streets of central London – illuminated in the hours after dusk by the innumerable gaslights that flared from shop windows – as if they were a comfortable, albeit brilliant, interior.
But Dickens was also beginning to roam at night with a darker, more solipsistic sense of purpose at this point – or, with a compulsive sense of purposelessness. It appears likely, for example, that at the start of the 1840s he first returned at night to the site of Warren’s, the blacking factory where he had laboured as a twelve-year-old child, labelling bottles, while his father served his prison sentence for debt. In the autobiographical fragment that Dickens wrote for Forster in 1847, he confirmed that, ‘in my walks at night I have walked there often, since then, and by degrees I have come to write this’. As in his subsequent recollections of loitering outside Maria Winter’s house, the activities of nightwalking and reconstructing decisive or even traumatic events from his past were curiously, elaborately intertwined (in this respect, as in others, he was like De Quincey). ‘I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man’, Dickens wrote of the inexorable pull of the blacking factory, ‘and wander desolately back to that time of my life’. Both dreaming and nightwalking involved ‘wandering desolately back’ into the past.
Increasingly, too, nightwalking seems to have become instrumental to the business of writing, itself a compulsive activity for Dickens. It provided release – sometimes instantaneous, sometimes not – from the uncontainable sense of excitement or frustration he often felt during the composition of his fiction, the serial production of which exerted peculiarly intense demands on his psyche. On 2 January 1844, for example, Dickens wrote to his friend Cornelius Felton, Professor of Greek at Harvard University, informing him that he had sent a package to him by steamship containing a copy of A Christmas Carol (1843): ‘Over which Christmas Carol’, the novelist writes in the third person, ‘Charles Dickens wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition; and thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.’ It is as if, but for the freedom to roam through the ‘black streets of London’, the back streets of the city at night, he might have burst – like the boiler of the steamship that throbbed across the Atlantic with the book he had sent to Felton.
On the occasions when for one reason or another, during the composition of a book, Dickens could not pace freely about the metropolis at night, the absence of the ‘black streets’ crippled him. ‘Put me down on Waterloo-bridge at eight o’clock in the evening, with leave to roam about as long as I like, and I would come home, as you know, panting to go on’, he wrote to his confidant Forster from Genoa in 1844, when he was labouring on The Chimes (1844); ‘I am sadly strange as it is, and can’t settle.’ ‘He so missed his long night-walks before beginning anything’, commented Forster, ‘that he seemed, as he said, dumbfounded without them.’
Two years later, on the continent once again, Dickens’s ‘craving for streets’ became even more acute. At the end of August 1846, living with his family in Lausanne, where he was writing Dombey and Son (1848), he complained to Forster of ‘the absence of streets and numbers of figures’:
I can’t express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or a fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), and a day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!! … I only mention it as a curious fact, which I have never had an opportunity of finding out before. My figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them. I wrote very little in Genoa (only the Chimes), and fancied myself conscious of some such influence there – but Lord! I had two miles of streets at least, lighted at night, to walk about in; and a great theatre to repair to, every night.
No one in the nineteenth century can have needed London quite as much as Dickens did. It was an addiction.
Dickens sickened when he did not have access to the phantasmagoric effects of the city – especially at night, when it was most like a magic lantern. In October 1846 he informed Forster of his delight at moving from Lausanne to Geneva, though he admitted that in the latter too he suffered from ‘occasional giddiness and headache’, which he confidently attributed ‘to the absence of streets’. Dickens subsisted on the lifeblood of the metropolitan city like a vampire, thriving on its streets and ‘figures’ as their energies ebbed after nightfall. Even in substantial, sociable urban centres such as Geneva and Genoa, which were extensively lighted at night, he felt claustrophobic because he did not have the same freedom to roam across considerable distances.
Paris, like London, offered Dickens relief from this sense of inhibition that seemed to paralyse both him and his characters. In another slightly desperate letter sent to Forster from Lausanne, this time in September 1846, at a time when he was deeply, painfully embroiled in the composition of Dombey and Son, he consoled himself with thoughts of the Parisian streets at night:
The absence of any accessible streets continues to worry me, now that I have so much to do, in a most singular manner. It is quite a little mental phenomenon. I should not walk in them in the day time, if they were here, I dare say: but at night I want them beyond description. I don’t seem to be able to get rid of my spectres unless I can lose them in crowds. However, as you say, there are streets in Paris, and good suggestive streets too; and trips to London will be nothing then.
On the night of his arrival in Paris, shortly after he sent this letter, Dickens escaped from the rest of the family, which had decamped to a small house in the Rue de Courcelles. As Forster reports, invoking Dickens’s adjective, he proceeded to take a ‘“colossal” walk about the city, of which the brilliancy and brightness almost frightened him’. Nightwalking was a territorial habit, one that enabled Dickens to orientate himself in the city, to realign the relationship between the metropolis and mental life. But it also offered a release from uncontainable emotions. In January 1847, he ‘slaughtered’ Paul Dombey, to use his term. ‘Then he walked through the streets of Paris until dawn’, as Peter Ackroyd reports. Thus he attempted to rid himself of one of his spectres. No doubt his nightwalk conjured up other ghosts — in the form of memories or fantasies — which he could not so easily escape or suppress.