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Reviewed by:
  • The Uncommercial Traveller ed. by Daniel Tyler
  • Tony Williams
Daniel Tyler, ed. The Uncommercial Traveller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. Pp.xlvi + 391. $24. 95; £14.99.

The cover of this edition shows the older man, Dickens, from the illustration by G. J. Pinwell used for the 1868 Charles Dickens Edition of The Uncommercial Traveller essay “Travelling Abroad.” The figure has his head bowed and is superimposed on an extract from a map of [End Page 246] nineteenth-century London; it directs the figure’s sightline to the southern end of Borough High Street, the Church of St. George the Martyr and the site of the Marshalsea Prison. It is an evocative piece of design work, uniting the older man of the years when these essays were written with the powerful childhood experiences of the writer in the 1820s. “Do Not Forget,” as we are enjoined in Little Dorrit.

The Uncommercial Traveller first made his appearance in the fortieth weekly number of All The Year Round published on 28 January 1860 and was to appear in the pages of the journal during the last ten years of Dickens’s life. In his wide-ranging and detailed introduction to this edition, Daniel Tyler traces his history of the original appearance of these essays and places them in the context of the literary tradition of the occasional essay from which they, in part, emerge. The introduction also locates the essays in terms of Dickens’s writing concerns and his life, particularly their melancholy tone in places and their equally important emphasis on the survival of important human values as communicated through writing. The Uncommercial Traveller works for the “great house of Human Interest Brothers” and has “a large connexion in the fancy goods way” (5). There is, further, a significant exploration of the way the essays relate to a period of change and development in the city from which most of them originate – London – and the impact these changes had on people living through them. The editor is careful to point to the way these changes sometimes occurred during publication.

Dickens’s narrative method is further explored in the introduction. Dickens chooses to present these essays in the first-person narrative mode and this is what binds them together, but the narrator is a character creation as well. In one of the later essays, “A Fly-Leaf in a Life” (22 May 1869), he writes that he is “accustomed to observe myself as curiously as if I were another man.” A number of the essays have what seems to be a highly personal, even autobiographical, slant to them, and interpretations have been made which see them as manifestations of Dickens himself; this is not always the case even when it seems like it or he claims it. What we have here is a complex, mature method of narrating the material: a mixture of fact and imagination, sometimes drawing on direct experience, sometimes offering more fanciful approaches. For Dickens, they had the advantage of keeping him before the public eye in the pages of his journal when he was not engaged in publishing a full-scale novel or directly in contact with the public through the public readings.

An unsigned review appeared in the Saturday Review on 23 February 1861, thought by Philip Collins in Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1971) to be by James Fitzjames Stephen, praising the writing in the essays as “pleasant, witty, shrewd and unhackneyed. It treats of things that we like to read about, and in a manner that is peculiar to the writer.” For almost [End Page 247] a century the availability of these essays was in collected volumes. In 1958 the New Oxford Illustrated Dickens series published a volume combining these essays with “Reprinted Pieces” and other items and described by Leslie Staples, the editor, as “the polished prose of the established master.” The first annotated scholarly edition appeared over forty years later in 2000, in John Drew and Michael Slater’s volume 4 of the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens’s Journalism, where they describe the Uncommercial Traveller essays as “some of his [Dickens’s] very finest work in this genre” (xx). Philip Drew in...


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