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Dickens’ Nocturnal Wanderings:Walking and Obsession

April 1, 2012

As this is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, a few months ago I read Claire Tomalin’s clear, extensive and insightful biography of Charles Dickens. In relation to crime-fiction, Dickens is thought by many to be the author of the first detective story with his novel Bleak House (1852-3), wherein the villainous lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn patiently works out Lady Deadlock’s scandalous secret and the story reaches its height, as Tomalin puts it, with ‘a three-suspect murder at the climax’ featuring one of the first police detectives in fiction, Inspector Bucket.  Aside from expanding my understanding of the relentless energy with which Dickens pursued his craft, the stage, his charitable works and his mistress Nelly Ternan, as well as the unforgivable way he patronised, dismissed, and falsely blackened the reputation of his long-suffering wife (he did not go as far as his friend and fellow novelist Bulwer-Lytton and have his wife committed against her will to an insane asylum) one of the things that stood out to me was his compulsion for walking–sometimes 20 miles at a time and often in London or Paris at night.

Dickens’ walks seemed to have initially been taken out of necessity but grew into a form of voyeurism, an outlet for frustrations, a means of escaping family, and a way to spend time with his male friends. He began wandering the streets of London as a ten-year-old boy when his parents were unable to fund his schooling, and his independence grew when his father was imprisoned for debt, and twelve-year-old Dickens lived and worked apart from his family. Dickens observed the glories and trappings of late-Georgian and early Victorian London, and his writing reveals his fascination with all levels of society including the criminal underworld, jails and prostitution. Although some of his walks as a married man were idyllic rambles through his boyhood county of Kent, in Paris, he visited the morgue at sundown and walked the streets all night.

I am a great fan of walking, rambling, and generally viewing a city by foot, but the time and length of Dickens’ walks, seemed to go beyond enjoyment to compulsion or obsession. Parenthetically, Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Acquainted with the Night’ states that ‘time was neither wrong nor right’, but the idea that the night walker is largely apart from society (or good society) and in a largely voyeuristic role, seems to indicate something brooding and forbidden. Dickens taps into these ideas himself in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5). The novel is divided into two love stories, although many prefer the John/Bella plot that harkens back to medieval or Shakespearean drama of disguise, I have always preferred the love  triangle of the bored gentleman-barrister Eugene Wrayburn (who always puts me in mind of a fin de siècle Oscar Wilde character), the severely passionate schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, and the self-sacrificial boatman’s daughter Lizzie Hexam. Obsession is key to the story, and Lizzie becomes the object at which the two men’s separate meannesses unfold. Although they both ‘watch’ Lizzie, and try to cast it as watching over her, they become more and more entangled with each other. When Lizzie escapes London following Headstone’s forceful proposal and Wrayburn’s pursuit of what would result in her becoming his mistress, Wrayburn takes to walking the streets at night, taunting Headstone, whom he knows follows him in the absence of Lizzie. Below is a clip of the BBC’s version of the night walk from their 1998 adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.

It is another night walk that will drive Headstone, in his passion-for-Lizzie-cum-hatred- for-Wrayburn to attempt a murder.

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