We New Englanders have long called Boston “the Hub”. And there’s a sense, just barely concealed, that we’re really referring to the hub of the universe, and not merely the hub of the state or region. Undoubtedly, New England has a strong regional identity that includes the ubiquitous image of the “proper Bostonian” as well as a rich, well-known history that stretches back, at least from a European perspective, almost four centuries. So, when one thinks about Massachusetts during the Victorian period, images of God-fearing, long-hemmed, be-hatted New Englanders walking to white, steepled churches in verdant town commons emerge. Great Britain, whose long-reigned monarch gave the period its name, surely corners the market on the prim manners and complex social rituals associated with the Victorian era. But, from an American perspective, how was New England viewed during the Victorian period?
Enter Charles Dickens to provide us some perspective, from one of Queen Victoria’s most well-known subjects, no less. When Charles Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada in 1842, he was barely 30 years old, nearly three years away from publishing A Christmas Carol, and almost two decades from publishing A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Even with his early works, however, Dickens, by 1842, had already amassed a large following in New England.
The long-time Justice at the Lowell Police Court, Samuel P. Hadley, a ten-year-old boy at the time, recorded his memories of the Dickens visit to Lowell, Massachusetts years later for the Lowell Historical Society. He recalled Dickens’ early novel, The Pickwick Papers, and how Lowell had grown enamored with the rich scenes and contagious humor displayed by Dickens in the work. Judge Hadley, like many Lowell residents of the time, had taken turns reading the book aloud with his family, and recalled watching his father convulse with laughter, until they had to close the book and stop reading, not being able to stand any more. He also recalled spilling tears over Little Nell Trent, the angelic and virtuous young heroine who met a tragic fate in Dickens’ novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.
While visiting Boston in early February 1842, Dickens took a one-day excursion to see the factories of Lowell, a young city barely 20 years into its existence at the time. Very little documentation of the visit exists in the Lowell papers of the day. Dickens made no friends with the reporters when he failed to notify them of his coming visit. His recollections of the trip survive mostly in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, published later that year. He used the travelogue to discuss his perceptions of American culture, and provide some interesting insights into how our Victorian-era ancestors were viewed by the English.
Q: What were Dickens’ impressions of rail travel in the United States?
A: Dickens noticed that the American railroads had no distinct first and second class carriages like their British counterparts. Rather, he remarked that the railroad cars were divided into gentlemen’s cars (where everyone smoked) and ladies’ cars (where no one did). He also noted, nineteenth-century perspective clearly exhibited, that “as a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car”, which he went on to describe as a “great, blundering, clumsy chest”.
He found the railroad cars to provide a “great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell”. The cars, he said were like “shabby omnibuses, but larger, holding thirty, forty, or fifty people.” For warmth, the cars were equipped with a stove, he noted, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal, which was red-hot and “insufferably close”. Through the light of its embers, one could see fumes co-mingle with the tendrils of smoke wafting in from the gentlemen’s car. Gentlemen did ride in the ladies’ car, when they accompanied ladies. Also, some ladies travelled alone.
Q: Victorian-era people have a reputation for being rather standoffish, even stiff in their rigid, long-hemmed clothes. What did Dickens think of the Americans he met on the train?
A: Dickens bristled at the informality exhibited by the train conductor (“or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be”). As he explained:
“He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets, and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him.” He also found it odd that “everybody” on the train “talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy.”
Q: And the American intellect?
A: Dickens wasn’t impressed. He noticed that when upon learning he was an Englishman, Americans asked how the US railroad compared to its British counterpart. In his travelogue, Dickens presents this rather comical exchange:
“If you are an Englishman, he expects that the railroad is pretty much like an English railroad. If you say “No,” he says “Yes?” (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ. You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says “Yes?” (still interrogatively) to each. Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says “Yes?” again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, doesn’t believe it. After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that “Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;” upon which you say “Yes,” and then he says “Yes” again (affirmatively this time) ; and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart location, where he expects you have concluded to stop. Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout) ; and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger and that all the great sights are somewhere else.”
Dickens noted that politics was much discussed aboard the train, as were banks and cotton. He also noted that, as today, “that directly [after] the acrimony of the last [presidential] election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins”.
Q: And the landscape of Victorian-era New England?
A: Dickens found the rail very narrow in the United States – with the forest closing in tightly, almost claustrophobically, on the train. Where a view could be had, he saw only “stunted trees: some hewn down by axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips.”
Q: And the picturesque lakes and ponds we treasure today?
A: “Each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; and on every side there are the boughs, trunks, and stumps of trees in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect.”
Q: And the idyllic New England townscapes we imagine as even more pristine in Victorian times?
A: “Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r ! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water.”
So much for an appreciation of the wetlands protection act.
Dickens appears to have viewed the towns along the Boston to Lowell route – Somerville, Medford, Winchester, Woburn, and Billerica, to name a few, as hinterlands on civilization’s edge. He noted stations “in the woods” where it seemed “the wild impossibility of anybody having to get out is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in.”
On arriving in Lowell
Dickens thought it odd that no gate, policeman, or signal marked the railroad crossings. As his train rushed through the last crossing before Lowell, he noticed only a wooden arch (“rough”, in his words) with these words of caution: “When the bell rings, look out for the locomotive.” He found his arrival into Lowell startling as the train raced through the darkness under a wooden bridge and emerged into the blinding brightness of the main thoroughfare of a large town (probably Lowell’s Merrimack Street).
He watched as tradesmen looked up from their trades, people leaned from their doors and windows, boys stopped playing with kites and marbles, pigs stopped burrowing, and horses reared up, as the train pulled into the station in a shower of burning sparks, screeches and groans.
Dickens had arrived in Lowell – to see the factories of a manufacturing town that, at approximately 21 years old, was “only just of age”, in his words.
Next Post: Dickens thoughts on Lowell, the City.