I’ve been on a bit of a Dickensian binge lately. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve been frequenting wretched hovels of the poor, inhumane factories and filthy prisons. My desk at work could use a bit of tidying up, but it’s far from squalid.
No, it being the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth and me being almost completely ignorant of Dickens’s life — though I have enjoyed several of his works, “Great Expectations” most recently — I figured I should read up on this giant of English literature.
Conveniently, and coincidentally, a few years ago I had picked up at a book sale (New Yorker) Edgar Johnson’s two-volume Dickens biography, and I finished it recently. I am now tackling his five Christmas stories, saving the immortal “Christmas Carol” for last.
From Johnson I learned many things about Dickens. Among them: he had been a Parliamentary reporter at a young age; his father, made famous by his son for his stint with the family in debtor’s prison, was a fool with money all his life whom Dickens had to repeatedly bail out; he loathed his wife, Catherine, with whom he had 10 children and with whom, this being the Victoria era, he had a scandalous public split; he found Americans’ habit of spitting tobacco juice revolting; and at the time of his death at 58 he had made more money from public reading tours than from the sale of his books.
What I did not learn about Dickens is what he did when he was in Quebec City during his first tour of North America in 1842. That Dickens spent time here is well known; indeed he wrote a passage in “American Notes” describing the charms of the old city. But the details of his visit have been surprisingly apocryphal, given Dickens’s lofty stature in English letters.
In Dickens’s brief Quebec travelogue, he makes reference to the Wolfe-Montcalm Monument erected in 1828 to honour the heroes of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The Latin inscription on the monument reads “Mortem Virtus Communem, Famam Historia, Monumentum Posteritas Dedit” (Their courage gave them a common death, history a common fame, posterity a common memorial.)
As I found out, the author of those immortal words hosted Dickens and Kate during their whirlwind tour of Quebec City. John Charlton Fisher, then a printer, newspaper publisher and driving force of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, took charge of the famous couple during their day trip to the old town.
Acting on a tip from a local amateur historian, I found details of Dickens’s visit in two paragraphs on the second page of the May 28, 1842, edition of The Quebec Mercury, which has been digitized and made available online by Quebec’s archives.
At that time, Dickens was a literary sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, based on the publication of “Sketches by Boz,” “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickelby,” “Barnaby Rudge” and “The Old Curiosity Shop.”
The Mercury scribe, who had a brief interview with the Dickenses, notes: “So much has been written of Boz that we can only add that, though a popular author, he is no pendant, by no means desires to make a display and is much better pleased by being quietly and kindly received as Mr. Dickens travelling for amusement, than as Boz whose works have created so great a sensation in the periodical literature of the present day.”
And that’s pretty much it.
Dickens was to pen his arguably most famous work, “A Christmas Carol,” the next year. There are accounts that the author took part of his inspiration for the Cratchit family’s solidarity from his witnessing of immigrant families aboard the ships he took on his travels in North America. He had been moved by their tenderness, caring and optimism despite their impoverished circumstances.
It is perhaps comforting to know that this most famous tale of Christmas charity has a bit of this part of the world in it.
So, in that seasonal spirit, let me wish readers a Merry Christmas from this very briefly, but very truly Dickensian city.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.