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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dickens and "Pictures from Italy" (1843-46)

Charles Dickens decided to spend some time in Italy in 1843 follows the disappointing results of both American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens felt the urge to enjoy a period of relaxation in some healthy and cheap place.

Dickens did not by any means consider his Italian sojourn as a grand tour, but rather as an occasion to seek diversion and stimulate his creativity.

The core of the work was written in 1844 while Dickens, having left his family in Genoa, was travelling through the Italian cities. Dickens moved very fast, never stopping for more than a couple of days in any city, with the exception of Rome and Genoa, where he rented a villa. He would write down his impressions either in the evening, after the day’s travelling or sightseeing, or in his coach, during journeys; his impressions would take the form of letters addressed to various friends, principally to his biographer, John Forster.

When Dickens returned to Britain he began a series of weekly articles called Italian Letters for the Daily News, which were based on the letters he had actually written when he was abroad. These contributions were published from November 1845 to March 1846; after this date Dickens abruptly stopped his correspondence and decided to postpone the undertaking of a new novel, namely Dombey and Son, in order to write a volume-length travelogue about his Italian experience.

The reader of Pictures from Italy is also considered different from the one of the classic Baedecker: whereas ordinary travel books were written for people who would go to Italy in order to instruct them on the must-see, this travelogue is thought for those who are to remain in Britain and it aims at entertaining more than at instructing.

Dickens’s chief intent is not in describing the setting, but in working with metaphors and creating a certain half dark-half hilarious tone.

James Davies argues that Dickens’s travelogue ‘has to be read as travel fiction in which the Narrator-character is the main source of interest’ and that ‘the narrator emerges as a complex, unhappy and confused figure’ largely responsible for a narrative effect which this critic calls ‘latent negativity’. Far from being solely Dickensian, this dark view of the Italian experience was common to many British travellers at a time when the traditional interest in the Italy of the past was giving way to an interest in present-day Italy.

According to C.P. Brand, ‘the idealistic halo with which the Romantics had surrounded Italy’ was being superseded by a more realistic outlook: ‘Dickens and his contemporaries mockingly substitute dirt and mosquitoes for the moonlit ruins and the serenades of their sentimental parents’.