Italy: The Sequel

By Metz, Nancy Aycock | Dickens Quarterly, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Italy: The Sequel


Metz, Nancy Aycock, Dickens Quarterly


Describing the "desolate" Campagna surrounding Rome, Dickens remarks in Pictures from Italy:

   [it] reminded me of an American prairie; but what is the solitude
   of a region where men have never dwelt, to that of a Desert, where
   a mighty race have left their footprints in the earth from which
   they have vanished. (396)

It is the only extended reference in the text to Dickens's other famous travelogue, American Notes. Yet the first journey shadows the second in ways that reward close examination.

More than any other factor, Dickens's intense experiences as a celebrity tourist in America determined the way he chose to experience Italy--the length and traveling conditions of his journey, the pace and rhythm of his trip, the sights he chose to see, even the personae he adopted as a traveler. Dickens's Italian travels can thus be seen as both a sequel and a revision of his American journey, extending the range of his observation into a new sphere and challenging his way of thinking about fundamental concepts like "home" and "away." In traveling to Italy Dickens was, in important ways, completing the intellectual and imaginative labor of his earlier trip, one part of which was to work out the role of travel in his writing life and the methods by which experiences of other places and cultures could be truthfully rendered. Indeed the original impulse to "fade away from the public eye for a year, and enlarge my stock of description and observation by seeing countries new to me" (Letters 3: 587) was born of Dickens's American experiences; it was a specific reaction to the frustrations he felt at the negative reviews of American Notes and the disappointing sales of Martin Chuzzlewit. He could not write, he told Forster, because "a wrong kind of fire is burning in my head" (Letters 3: 516). Italy was thus conceived as a kind of antidote to America, "the step to set me right," offering him an opportunity to recoup his finances and his creative energies, satisfy his "natural desire" to place himself among "those great scenes," and indulge both his need for rest and his perennial wanderlust (Letters 3: 588, 591).

Dickens's earliest anticipations of the Italian trip show his playful determination to escape the perceptual prison of his own celebrity--his chief impediment, as it had turned out, to truly "seeing" America. Fantasizing about the upcoming journey in a letter to Angus Fletcher in May 1844, he imagines himself in full visual command of the Italian landscape "on the roof with a telescope at my Eye." But, he adds, "little of me is visible behind my moustache [which is of a] swarthy and Bandit hue" (Letters 4: 124). The moustache is a classic Dickensian flourish, theatrical in an exuberantly self-mocking way, but it is also the visible embodiment of a new insight. Dickens makes a distinction, as he did not in American Notes, between traveling as his well-known public self and self-consciously adopting a role. Even before the journey began, he had become in his own mind the "unreliable" narrator Clothilde de Stasio describes in her essay, "The Traveller as Liar" (8). Revealingly, Dickens's note to Fletcher proposes play and play-acting as a metaphor for travel. America had been essentially an extended tour of inspection. Italy was to be a more open-ended and improvisational journey of exploration--a journey possible only under conditions of disguise or anonymity. Allowing himself to become the focal point for the observation of others, Dickens knew to his cost, would inevitably have a limiting and distorting effect both on what is and on what can be seen. At the very outset of his journey, Dickens sought to appropriate what Stephen Bann has called "the mastery of the non-reciprocal gaze" (212).

These ideas, hinted at in Dickens's correspondence, frame the opening passages of Pictures from Italy, which often seem to parody or critique the well-known narrative of Dickens's experiences in America. …

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