Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Pete Orford's Blog

Currently featured in Exclusively Independent is Charles Dickens On Travel by Pete Orford (Hesperus Press). This is a fantastic title enabling Dickens' travel writing to be approachable and easily digested. Through Pete's thorough research, the reader is given a rare glimpse into Dickens' writing - as a young man.

The beauty of Dickens’ travel writing is that it offers an immediacy to the modern reader. Though culture has changed, many of the sights he describes have endured. I took Pictures from Italy with me on holiday and all the sights Dickens sees are still there – the coliseum, the leaning tower of Pisa, Juliet’s balcony in Verona, and often his opinions of them hold as much relevance now as they do then. Suddenly he steps away from the context of the nineteenth century and becomes a very distinguished contemporary travel guide.

Editing this collection was a great indulgence as I ‘worked’ long hours reading Dickens’ many essays, and with so much to choose from the process of selection became rather arbitrary at times. For instance, I wanted to try to get as many different locations in there as I could, so limited myself to just the one passage from America and Italy. But I also wanted to show how travel was as much about the passenger as it is about the location, which is why I picked two accounts of a trip to France written by Dickens as a thirty-nine year old and a fifty-one year old, to show how the same sights can be read differently at various points in our life, how wonder turn to weariness when the exotic becomes familiar.

This idea of one person’s holiday being another person’s routine journey is complemented by Dickens’ capacity through all his works for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary; Sketches by Boz is a testament to how he could look at the everyday and find scenes of drama, amusement and profoundness within. So in his account of London transport, or his tale of Mr Booley the panorama enthusiast, Dickens teaches us that the thrills of travel are available on our doorstep: the notion of holidaying becomes a matter of not where you go, but how you choose to perceive what you see. It certainly gave me food for thought, and I take time now on daily commutes to appreciate the landscape and the scenery just as a tourist – or Dickens – would.

I guess one of the things I wanted to do in working on these volumes for Hesperus was to sidestep the intimidation that some people feel about Dickens or other writers burdened with the ‘classic’ label. We too often forget why these writers were so popular in the first place, and become too obsessed with critical readings of passages that were intended, first and foremost, to entertain. Closely connected to this, and something which I touch upon in the introduction, is the mental image we have of Dickens – the bearded, austere fellow from the back of the ten pound note. But this is Dickens at the end of his career, whereas the majority of his novels were written by a young man in his twenties and thirties. In the majority of his writings there is gleeful and reckless ribbing of the established system that directly contradicts the restrictive connotations of his posthumous categorising as a literary monument. So if there’s one thing I hope the book achieves, or promotes, it’s the accessibility of Dickens.

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