Sunday, April 30, 2017

Charles Dickens Doesn't Think Much of Italy

A few years ago when I was especially enamored of Dickens, I bought nearly every one of his books I could get my hands on, including his lesser-known nonfiction. I'd been meaning to read Pictures from Italy for several years and since I recently took a vacation in Tuscany, it seemed like the perfect time to read it.

Well, yes and no. I was really hoping it would be a delightful travelogue, and it really isn't. To put it bluntly, it's not a very flattering portrait of Italy. Dickens seems rather fixated on darker, more grotesque aspects. Though he does love some of the historical sites like the Colosseum, he repeatedly describes the darker side of Italy, gleefully describing a tour of a fortress where people were tortured during the Inquisition; several descriptions of cemeteries with mass graves where poor people are buried, and I think there's even an execution. It's almost as if he's reveling in the squalor of the seamier side of Italy. Occasionally, he does describe the beautiful landscape and architecture, but over and over, it's pretty negative. Dickens wasn't too impressed with the Italian people either, mostly describing them as beggars or cheats. It's also pretty clear he didn't think much of Catholicism. 

Basically, I feel like Dickens was showing all his British readers how edgy and daring he was, showing the seamier side of traveling to a poorer country. Characters in Victorian novels often mention that they might move to the continent, where the living is cheaper, and it's also common for them to honeymoon in Italy or take the Grand Tour. It sounds very exciting to me as a 21st century Yank but there's nothing glamorous about this book. I found it to be mostly unflattering and often quite condescending, and it was disconcerting to read this while actually on holiday in Italy, where I had a wonderful time with excellent food and very nice people.
View of Florence from the Boboli Gardens. What's not to love, Dickens?
One wonders why he spent so much time in Italy if wasn't enjoying it! Unfortunately, I couldn't find my print copy with the annotations which I can only assume give more insight to this publication and its reception -- I think it must have been left behind during the big move last year (I ended up reading the electronic version, which was so much more convenient for traveling.) Dickens also published an account of his travels in America, American Notes for General Circulation. I can only imagine the reception it received across the pond, and I don't see myself rushing to track down a copy!

I'm counting this as my Italian read for the European Reading Challenge, and as my Dickens read for the Victorian Reading Challenge.


  1. I suspect he was just one of those Englishmen who despise anything un-English, he probably had a great time moaning about it all though.

    1. It reminds me of a book I read called "The Clumsiest People in Europe" which is a travel guide written by a Victorian woman named Favell Lee Mortimer in the mid-1800s -- a woman who hardly ever left England! She only made it as far as Edinburgh, Paris, and Brussels, yet wrote all these bestselling books about other countries and how terrible they are.

      But seriously, why travel if other countries are so terrible? To feel superior?

  2. I read American Notes for the BTC 2015 Challenge and it was fairly negative (although some of his criticisms are still valid today IMO, in particular our American obsession with wealth).

    But you could easily just skip his non-fiction account and just read Martin Chuzzlewit instead. He gets all the same zingers in, but in fictional form in that title.

  3. I thought about reading this before my Italian trip in 2015, but read a review that warned me off, for all the reasons you state. I'm not sure Dickens was actually a good traveller--I think he lived abroad for economical reasons, but missed home horribly.

    >I found it to be mostly unflattering and often quite condescending, and it was disconcerting to read this while actually on holiday in Italy, where I had a wonderful time with excellent food and very nice people.

    It's hard not to have a wonderful time in Italy, in my limited experience!


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