- Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens by Matthew Beaumont
In one of the more striking images in Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London, Chaucer to Dickens, a book replete with striking images, Matthew Beaumont quotes Charles Dickens’s description of a celebrated thirty-mile walk from Tavistock House in Bloomsbury to Gad’s Hill, near the mouth of the Thames River in Kent. “Mile after mile I walked,” Dickens recalled, “without the slightest sense of exertion, dozing heavily and dreaming constantly” (qtd. 353). This “unsettling evocation” of seven hours of walking the streets out of London from two o’clock in the morning until after dawn, the “purposive purposelessness” that combines a goal-oriented exercise of physical exertion with an unfettered and wandering mind, neatly captures the tension between different types of nightwalking that structures this ambitious, capacious, and fascinating book (354, 4). On the one hand, Beaumont has set out to document a historical “shift … from the category of the ‘common nightwalker’, a criminal entity since before the thirteenth century, to that of the uncommon nightwalker, as it might be called” (9). In literary terms, one might call it a shift from the Parisian poète maudit François Villon (who does not make an appearance in Beaumont’s London-oriented book) to the celebrity novelist Dickens (whose dominant presence in the final two chapters brings the book to a majestic close). On the other hand, Beaumont is strongly invested in the oneiric, “incendiary,” and “deviant” power of what he terms “noctivagation,” the subversive forces roiling in the urban cityscape that are most visible and most present afoot and at night (7, 5, 7). As he writes of this tension in Dickens: “briskness is not wandering” (376).
Beaumont appears, as he suggests of Dickens, “half-ashamed” of the business-like side of his book, its more academic qualities, siding as he does more with the devil’s party of the “nightwalking tradition … this more aleatory form of ambulation, comparatively aimless, and open to chance happenings,” the common form, practiced by the houseless, the outcast, the poets, and the psychogeographers (376). This discomfort becomes more evident the closer the book gets to the nineteenth century and to a style of nightwalking close to the one, according to Will Self in an afterword, practiced by the author himself. So, the first of the book’s four parts provides us with a first-rate cultural history of night-walking in the medieval and early modern city, in particular the consequences of its varying degrees of criminalization, the often fluid boundary between nightwalkers and night watchmen, and the early manifestations of the nocturnal London imaginary that would mold representations of the city long into the age of industrial capitalism. As the book moves into its dense middle sections (Part Two covers the eighteenth century, and Part Three, Romanticism), the scholarly apparatus that gave the first part its depth and range recedes somewhat in favor of canonical male writers and their connection to walking, based mostly on careful and nuanced readings of primary sources and biographical data. When these writers—Thomas Dekker, William Blake, Thomas De Quincey, or the lesser-known John Dunton and Ned Ward—were deeply engaged in London nightwalking, the results are convincing and apposite. And sometimes, as in the reading of King Lear in terms of London homelessness, the reach of the nightwalking chronotope is startling and persuasive. At other times, such as during the long surveys of Oliver Goldsmith and [End Page 518] Richard Savage that touch down only briefly on nocturnal London walking (the halfway successful attempt to encompass Romantic wandering within the urban nightwalking paradigm), Beaumont loses sight of the main business of the book, and the reader risks the feeling of wandering aimlessly through the book’s many pages.
Victorianists in particular will be pleased when Part Four returns sharply to focus on its titular subject. Granted, it would be difficult to write about...