The History Behind A MATTER OF TIME
A Matter of Time: Coming in December, but available now for pre-order for your Kindle.
Charles Dickens, his wife Catherine, and her maid Ann set out from Liverpool January 4, 1842 on the steamship Britannia. The ship later won a blue ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, but this time the voyage was slow and exceptionally rough, and everyone, including Dickens, suffered greatly from sea sickness for much of the eighteen days they were aboard. The Britannia docked in Boston on January 22.
Back home in England Dickens had written to an American friend:
‘You make me very proud and happy, by anticipation in thinking of the number of friends I shall find, but I cannot describe to you the glow into which I rise, when I think of the wonders that await us and all the interest I am sure I shall have in your mighty land.’
In Boston the reality lived up to Dickens’ expectations. James T. Fields, who later became his American publisher and friend, described the author’s arrival:
How well I recall the bleak winter evening in 1842 when I first saw the handsome glowing face of the young man who was even then famous over half of the globe. He came bounding into the Tremont House, fresh from the steamer that had brought him to our shores, and his cheery voice rang through the hall, as he gave a quick glance at the new scenes opening upon him in a strange land at a Transatlantic hotel. ‘ Here we are ! ‘ he shouted, as the lights burst upon the merry party just entering the hotel, and several gentlemen came forward to meet him. Ah! How happy and buoyant he was then ! Young, handsome, almost worshipped for his genius, belted round by such troops of friends as rarely ever man had, coming to a new country to make new conquests of fame and honour surely it was a sight long to be remembered and never wholly to be forgotten!
Fields wrote further concerning Dickens’s first night in Boston:
About midnight on that eventful landing, ‘ Boz ‘ everybody called him ‘ Boz ‘ in those days having finished his supper, came down into the office of the hotel, and joining the young Earl of Mulgrave, his fellow voyager, sallied out for his first look at Boston Streets. It was a stinging night and the moon was at its full. Every object stood out sharp and glittering, and ‘ Boz,’ muffled up in a shaggy fur coat, ran over the shining frozen snow, wisely keeping the middle of the street, for the most part. We boys followed cautiously behind, but near enough not to lose any of the fun. Of course the two gentlemen soon lost their way on emerging into Washington from Tremont Street. Dickens kept up one continual shout of uproarious laughter as he went rapidly forward, reading the signs on the shops and observing the architecture of the new country into which he had dropped as if from the clouds.
During their time there Francis Alexander, a well-known Boston artist, painted Dickens’ portrait, and a sculptor Henry Dexter made a bust of him. When Dickens wasn’t sitting for those, he toured all of Boston and the surrounding area, including Cambridge University, the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the prison, the legislature, and the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Dickens told the world about his perceptions in American Notes, the travelogue he wrote upon his return to England. In the early portion of it, Dickens is overwhelmingly positive about America, remarking on the politeness of the people and that “ladies may travel everywhere safely.” He is complimentary of American “enterprise and ingenuity” and mentions several instances of things that England had copied from America’s example.
He was particularly impressed by the enlightened conditions at both the prison and the mills. Dickens wrote extensively about the Perkins Institute in American Notes. Years later in 1880, Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan went there, having heard about the school by someone who had read Dickens’ glowing praise of the school’s methods and success. Dickens found that the Lowell mills ran not only efficiently, but humanely. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that young female workers subscribed to a circulating library, had created their own little newspaper, and played the piano on the boarding house piano provided for tenants.
While in Boston, invitations to parties, speaking engagements, and other events started pouring in from all over the country. Dickens soon realized he would need help keeping up with the correspondence, or he’d have no time left over to see America. Francis Alexander, his portrait artist, recommended a pupil of his named George Putnam, and Dickens hired him on the spot.
Dickens wrote home to a friend about Putnam:
I have a secretary whom I take on with me. He is a young man by the name of Q [for some reason, he never mentions him by name] ; was strongly recommended to me ; is most modest, obliging, silent and willing, and does his work well. He boards and lodges at my expense when we travel, and his salary is ten dollars per month, about two pounds five of our English money.
After three weeks in Boston Charles Dickens, his secretary George Putnam, and his wife Catherine and her maid Ann set forth on a journey to see the rest of America. They would travel by railway car, canal boat, steamboat, and stage coach on a journey that would take nearly five months and five thousand miles.
Although my novel A Matter of Time deals with only a tiny part their journey—one day spent in Lebanon, Illinois—I knew that all that went on before impacted how Dickens saw the town and its citizens. I always find it fascinating to see the ways people and events intersect in history, and I tried to show that in the book.
It would be so nice of you to share!