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December 14, 2012

Dickens's visit to Quebec City recalled

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.

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