- Some Thing(s) About Italy: Dickensian Objects, Interiors and Pleasures
There is something about things in Charles Dickens’s Pictures from Italy (1846). And there is something about the effect of things on Dickens that helps generate this travelogue’s distinctive character, underpinning its idiosyncratic fusion of concrete detail with dreamlike abstraction. In the context of its unusual tone, many critics have noted that Pictures from Italy focuses less on Italy than on the feelings of The Inimitable himself. In 1906, G. K. Chesterton famously (and happily) declared Pictures from Italy to be more about its author than its subject: “His travels are not travels in Italy, but travels in Dickensland,” he wrote, [T]here is nothing Italian about [them]” (155–56). And although Chesterton’s admiring voice harkens back to William R. Hughes’ 1891 “A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land,” it echoes forward in time, as well. Indeed, Chesterton has very recent company in observing that Pictures from Italy features a tour guide with no greater interest than himself and his own sensations. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, for example, Kate Flint similarly observes that Pictures from Italy is at its most vivid when Dickens is focused on his own responses to his surroundings: “Fascinated both by the spectacle [Italy] offers, and by himself as spectator” she notes, he is “constructing not just a version of a country, but of himself” (Flint vii, xii).
Coming from opposite ends of the twentieth century, and from different critical traditions, Chesterton’s and Flint’s observations nevertheless overlap on the issue of Dickens’s inward focus. I want to connect this long-standing recognition of Dickens’s interest in his own responses to Italy with a second theme, specifically, the presence and significant effects of things, objects and details as another defining characteristic of Pictures from Italy. In this essay, I explore the ways in which the text structures the interior energies of “Dickensland” by examining how the subjective feelings of the observer are linked to the vigorous descriptive deployment of material objects. And [End Page 139] I argue that the narrative’s strategies for articulating internal sensations and associated personal pleasures – specifically through memories, dreams and solitude – emerge in response to the text’s intense interest in things. In turn, these internal modes for processing reality give shape and meaning to an otherwise potentially anarchic flow of objects. As part of my analysis, I include the as yet unexplored introductory notes from Edoardo Bolchesi’s 1879 translation of Pictures from Italy (the first Italian version, as well as one of the earliest Italian translations of any Dickens work). Bolchesi’s preface adds brief but valuable corroborating comment on the centrality of Italian things in Pictures from Italy.1
As a travelogue, the text is at least partially shaped by its particular moment in the history of British continental travel writing, emerging as the previous century’s Grand Tour, with its focus on viewing the fine arts and visiting sites from antiquity, was giving way to alternative modes of Italian travel. New ways of being abroad exchanged a fairly rigid sightseeing agenda for periods of fixed residency, increased flexibility of activities and more personal interaction with Italians (Paroissien 10). These changes helped broaden the topical and stylistic possibilities for nineteenth-century travel writing towards what Carl Thompson describes as a “more self-consciously ‘literary’ mode” emphasizing “aesthetic effect rather than factual information” (55). Pictures from Italy – and a turn towards interior impressions and responses – reflect both this new way of being abroad and this new style of writing about the experience of travel.
I note this shift because my claim that Pictures from Italy is internally focused is not intended to imply that the text is either self-indulgent or completely exceptional in that regard. Rather, it is part of a larger literary moment in which many travel writers moved from the conventionally descriptive towards the more intentionally reflective. As James Buzard points out, Dickens’s style evolved in response to a rising popular interest in the more literary aspects of travel writing, “staking out” a place in the teeming genre of Italian travel...