|Charles Dickens by Boston artist Francis Alexander (1800-1880), Boston 1842|
In honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens today (February 7, 2012), I would like to share with you my favorite comic passage from his many published works. American Notes for General Circulation was his nonfiction account of his first tour of the United States in 1842. Dickens was 29 years old, already world famous for the serializations of his novels The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop. He was keen to visit America to observe first-hand the young republic in action only 50 years after its independence from Britain.
Accompanied by his wife Kate and her maid, he embarked on the steamship Britannia in the port of Liverpool on January 3, 1842. On the third morning, Dickens was woken by a shriek of alarm from his wife as the ship was flung violently around by very heavy seas whipped up a strong head wind.
“The water-jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal-barges. Suddenly I see them spring into the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast upon the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head. …Imagine the wind howling, the sea roaring, the rain beating: all in furious array against her. Picture the sky both dark and wild, and the clouds in fearful sympathy with the waves, making another ocean in the air. Add to all this the clattering on deck and down below; the tread of hurried feet; the loud hoarse shouts of seamen; the gurgling in and out of water through the scuppers; with, every now and then, the striking of a heavy sea upon the planks above, with the deep, dead, heavy sound of thunder heard within a vault; - and there is the head-wind of that January morning. I say nothing of what may be called the domestic noises of the ship: such as the breaking of glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols, overhead, of loose casks and truant dozens of bottled porter, and the very remarkable and far from exhilarating sounds raised in their various state-rooms by the seventy passengers who were too ill to get up to breakfast.”
Bad as this was, there was worse to come. On the evening of the tenth day out, the ship sailed into a gale-force wind that raged for twelve brutal hours. The passengers must have been afraid for their lives, knowing that many a transatlantic ship was lost at sea. Yet in the midst of this chaos, Dickens found himself “in a situation so exquisitely ridiculous, that even then I had as strong a sense of its absurdity as I have now.”
His wife, her maid and a Scottish lady passenger “being in such ecstasies of fear that I scarcely knew what to do with them, I naturally bethought myself of some restorative or comfortable cordial; and nothing better occurring to me, at the moment, than a hot brandy-and-water, I procured a tumblerful without delay. It being impossible to stand or sit without holding on, they were all heaped together in one corner of a long sofa - a fixture extending entirely across the cabin - where they clung to each other in momentary expectation of being drowned. When I approached this place with my specific, and was about to administer it with many consolatory expressions to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to see them alll roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their rolling back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down this sofa for at least quarter of an hour without reaching them once; and, by the time I did catch them, the brandy-and-water was diminished by constant spilling to a tea-spoonful."
No doubt Dickens was alone in seeing the comic side of the incident at the time. To everyone’s enormous relief, the storm abated the next morning, having torn away the covers of the steamer’s paddle-boxes, knotted the rigging, and smashed the life-boat “like a walnut shell.” The rest of the journey was uncomfortable but uneventful. The Britannia made landfall in Boston on January 22, 1842, giving Charles Dickens his first glimpse of the “republic of my imagination.”
To be continued.....