Academic journal article British and American Studies

Traveller vs. Tourist: Exploring Italy in Pictures from Italy (1846) by Charles Dickens

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Traveller vs. Tourist: Exploring Italy in Pictures from Italy (1846) by Charles Dickens

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: Traveller vs. Tourist

Thomas Cook, a formidable entrepreneur often heralded as the "father" of mass tourism, began to organize shorter and less expensive group tours of the Continent in 1841, prompted by the fast development of railroads (which led to a significant reduction of travel times), and encouraged by the more reasonable train fares offered to parties of people sharing their journey (Von Buch 2007:252). Given its affordable cost of living, and its dazzling reputation as the birthplace of the picturesque, as a land of perpetual sunshine and outstanding antiquities, Italy continued to be one of the most popular key destinations of what may be termed as the "Petit Tour", which progressively replaced the traditional, elaborate itinerary across Europe designed, at the end of the seventeenth century, to enlighten and entertain the high-born youth. Budget and time restrictions also triggered the publication of a huge number of (supposedly) dependable and trustworthy travel books, which could rapidly and effectively direct the puzzled gaze of the unaware, middle-class tourist towards the main sites and attractions, without having to hire a local guide. Consequently, over 240 accounts of Italy were published in Great Britain between 1800 and 1850: they strongly contributed to codifying a set of behavioural rules to be observed in the foreign context, as well as establishing customary routes along which not-to-be-missed locations were highlighted, and hierarchically ordered according to their assumed importance. Besides, as Eleanor McNees (2007:211-229) elucidates, the authoritative verification provided by such volumes somehow validated the experience of the otherwise stumbling and inadequately informed visitors.

Needless to say, this increasing democratization of travel deepened the existing gulf between knowledgeable travellers and simple tourists, a distinction that Mary Shelley had already investigated in her 1826 essay entitled The English in Italy. Humorously comparing most of her compatriots - blindly eager to pour themselves into the fashionable peninsula - to "Norwegian rats, who always go right on" (Shelley 1990:341), the writer ridiculed their dull presumption, their "utter ignorance of the Italian language" (Shelley 1990:347), their longing "not to see, but to say that [they had] seen" (Shelley 1990:343), and their emotional and physical detachment from the newly explored territory and its inhabitants. Their superficial understanding of the other was further filtered through the stereotypical conventions of travel guides. Conversely, the authentic traveller, whom Mary Shelley called the Anglo-Italian, approached the Italians with unfeigned sympathy, and naturally conversed with them in their language; he shunned the beaten track, and, with eyes wide open, in the words of James Buzard (1993:35), "roam[ed] free of imposed borders and limitations".

This paper sets out to demonstrate that, following in the steps of Lord Byron and the Shelleys, Charles Dickens belonged to this second category, and that Pictures from Italy, his much maligned travelogue (harshly criticized, as it will be shown, by both the author's contemporaries and modem scholars), was actually aimed at disclosing channels of communication, bridging the existing gap between the British and the Italians, and challenging the fixed, clichéd, and narrow-minded perceptions of Italy that were so frequently repeated in well-known handbooks from major publishers such as Murray. Before delving into the analysis of the multifaceted strategy employed by the writer to foster the mental metamorphosis of his readers (and future travellers), it will be necessary to sketch a brief account of Dickens's itinerary throughout the country, followed by some relevant information on the genesis of the volume, and the response to its publication.

2. Charles Dickens's Tour of Italy

Exhausted by his demanding and hectic activities as a writer and editor, disappointed at the cold reception of American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), in 1844 Dickens resolved to "fade away from the public eye for a year", as he remarked in a letter to his biographer and friend John Forster, "and enlarge [his] stock of description and observation by seeing countries new to [him]" (Forster 1872-74). …

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