Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Charles Dickens Abroad: The Victorian Smelfungus and the Genre of the Unsentimental Journey

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Charles Dickens Abroad: The Victorian Smelfungus and the Genre of the Unsentimental Journey

Article excerpt

While Shakespeare wrote extensively about Italy without ever visiting the country--which accounts for the fact that in The Taming of the Shrew he places Padua in Lombardy (I, i, 3)--Dickens's descriptions of Italy draw on his own traveling experience. In 1844, he paid a long visit to Italy, which he summarized in Pictures from Italy (1846). In contrast to Shakespeare's image of Italy which, warped by cliches of Aretine depravity, Machiavellism and religious bigotry, was recaptured by novelists like Ann Radcliffe, Dickens lived in a cultural climate in which intellectuals not only felt dislocated from the past by modernization (Fraser 3) but also, in an act of colonizing history, tried to re-discover and re-invent Italy as the nucleus of Renaissance culture. In addition to poetry by Robert Browning and Walter Pater's essays on Renaissance artists, that interest in historiography involved a wide range of writers and scholars; and beyond that, it also spawned a considerable number of novels set in Rome, Venice and Florence which were intent on counterbalancing Ruskin's idea of the "grotesque Renaissance" with its "spirit of idiotic mockery" (Stones of Venice, 11: 145).

But, if we conclude from this Victorian context that Dickens must readily have catered to this enormous literary and cultural re-discovery of Italy, we are likely to be taken in by a fallacy. Instead of contributing to the myth of Italy as the omphalos of civilization and enlightenment, Dickens preferred to view Dante's and Petrarch's country from the critical perspective of a British traveler who was less prepared to go on a sentimental journey than on a Cavalier Tour that exposed him to a severe clash of cultures. (1) This fault-finding disposition and attitude of inveterate Britishness, which Dickens had also shown earlier in American Notes (1842), is clearly indebted to the eighteenth century: (2) While Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726) fused travel writing with Menippean satire to show the ubiquity of human depravity, it was Smollett in his Travels through France and Italy (1766) who saw dissolution materialized in France and Italy. So harsh was his criticism of the two countries that Laurence Sterne was prompted to satirize the Scotsman as the figure of Smelfungus, who vented his spleen on everything he saw: "The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris--from Paris to Rome--and so on--but he set out with spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass'd by was discoloured or distorted" (Sentimental Journey 28 ff.).

Having lost some of his popularity after his death in Leghorn in 1771, Smollett was still highly regarded by Dickens. As homage to the Scottish novelist, he not only mentions Smollett's grave, but attributes Leghorn's illustriousness to the mere fact that Smollett died there (Pictures from Italy 109). The concept of the picaresque density of action which Smollett moderately employed and partially adapted to the budding Romantic taste in Roderick Random (1748) and Peregrine Pickle (1751) had a strong impact on Dickens's early novels. But what proved no less attractive than the re-introduction of the picaresque hero was the refashioning of the type of the Splenetic Traveler, whom, in his typology of travelers, Sterne differentiated from the Idle, Inquisitive, Lying, Vain and Proud Traveler (Sentimental Journey 11) and who is best embodied by the censorious but multi-faceted Welshman Matthew Bramble in Smollett's last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). (3) It is this persona of the Splenetic Traveler, of the "Anglais de mauvaise humeur" (Kahrl 111), that Dickens assumes when he visits France and Italy as a Victorian who is suspicious of religious enthusiasm and all sorts of Romantic effusions of sentimentality (see also Buckley 29).

I. France

Both starting their journeys in France, Smollett and Dickens eagerly take every opportunity to pinpoint the facetiousness of a country that is still in the grip of two monstrosities: rococo fashion and outdated Catholic rituals. …

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