"At the station they had been sitting about, in their threadbare, homespun blue garments ..... Sad enough at heart, most of them." by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "In the French-Flemish Country," chapter 25 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

Full of this pleasure, I shortly afterwards departed from the town, little dreaming of an addition to my good fortune. But more was in reserve. I went by a train which was heavy with third-class carriages, full of young fellows (well guarded) who had drawn unlucky numbers in the last conscription, and were on their way to a famous French garrison town where much of the raw military material is worked up into soldiery. At the station they had been sitting about, in their threadbare homespun blue garments, with their poor little bundles under their arms, covered with dust and clay, and the various soils of France; sad enough at heart, most of them, but putting a good face upon it, and slapping their breasts and singing choruses on the smallest provocation; the gayest spirits shouldering half loaves of black bread speared upon their walking-sticks. As we went along, they were audible at every station, chorusing wildly out of tune, and feigning the highest hilarity. After a while, however, they began to leave off singing, and to laugh naturally, while at intervals there mingled with their laughter the barking of a dog. Now, I had to alight short of their destination, and, as that stoppage of the train was attended with a quantity of horn blowing, bell ringing, and proclamation of what Messieurs les Voyageurs were to do, and were not to do, in order to reach their respective destinations, I had ample leisure to go forward on the platform to take a parting look at my recruits, whose heads were all out at window, and who were laughing like delighted children. [Chapter 25, "In the French-Flemish Country," p. 125]

Commentary

In this 12 September 1863 article from All the Year Round, which became the twenty-fifth chapter in both the American and British Household Edition volumes, Dickens does not offer clues as to which town in "Flandre Francaise" the action occurs. As Slater and Drew point out, that the setting suggested is not far from the department of Pas de Calais may imply that the Uncommercial Traveller's peregrinations on the French side of the Channel are a mere "smokescreen for visits with or to [Dickens's young mistress] Ellen Ternan centring on Condette, near Boulogne" (296-297). No wonder, then, that Dickens's persona is a little vague about the towns he visits in his travels in this piece. The presence of a fair and a railway station suggest equally Gravelines, Dunkerque, and Hazebroucke. The contemporary allusion to French military victories in Mexico (in support of the French-installed Emperor Maximilian) points to mid-1863; for example, French forces entered Mexico City unopposed on 7 June 1863. Not so helpful is Dickens's reference to "Californian gold" (122), which merely points to a chronological setting of any year after the initial Gold Rush of 1848, although the Holcomb Valley Gold Rush in the San Bernardino Mountains in May 1860 may be reflected in the allusion.

Dalziel's illustration focuses not on the vanities and peculiarities of the fair (as opposed to C. S. Reinhart's depiction for the same chapter of the Ventriloquist and the Face-Maker in a side-show), but on the young men who will be transformed into soldiers in a nearby "famous French Garrison town" (125). The older-looking soldier (centre right) is carrying one of the black loaves of which Dickens speaks (although nobody has speared one on a walking-stick), but the railway station in Dalziel's engraving contains only a few young men in uniform, and they do not seem to be "putting on a good face" to disguise their sadness at leaving home for the unknown world of the military. The amorous woman (left of centre) is a particularly discordant detail, but then Dalziel doubtless felt that he had to inject a little drama into the relatively static scene — and he no longer had to worry about the author's vetoing his interpretation of the text. Certainly Dalziel had to square the reference to peasant "homespun" garments with the reference in the description to "walking- sticks," so that the young men whom the Uncommercial Traveller joins for the rail journey are probably (at least, not for the most part) in military uniform. The four uniforms in the picture look far more nautical than the passage would suggest. Finally, any kind of singing, indicative of forced jollity, is not in evidence.

Other travel and foreign scenes

Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.


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Last modified 26 March 2013