Although the industrial innovations of the Victorian era were certainly technologically impressive, they left many missing the past. Philip V Allingham writes, "By the beginning of the Railway Age in the 1840s many people approaching middle age...began to look back nostalgically to the good, old days of coaches and hospitable inns, manorial feasts, and blazing yule-logs" ("Dickens: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'"). This nostalgic desire takes different forms in the literature of the time.

For example, it appears in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, when Alice encounters the White Knight, a comical yet sympathetic character.

Of all the strange things that Alice saw in her journey Through the Looking-Glass, this was the one that she always remembered most clearly. Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday — the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight — the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her — the horse quietly moving about, with the reins hanging loose on his neck, cropping the grass at her feet — and the black shadows of the forest behind — all this she took in like a picture, as, with one hand shadowing her eyes, she leant against a tree, watching the strange pair, and listening, in a half-dream, to the melancholy music of the song. [187].

Victorian nostalgia also pervades Dickens' this first of his many Christmastime scenes in Pickwick Papers:

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstance connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday. Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days, that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the sailor and the traveller thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home! [361]

These passages share the same theme, that times past are irretrievably lost but haunt our memory forever. The time frame of this nostalgic (and slightly morbid) theme is not exactly the same in each passage: Carroll's nostalgia is that of an adult for childhood (and specifically, the father figure represented by the older, "kindly" Knight), and while Dickens' nostalgia is that of an "old man" for "the pleasures of his youth," the implication seems to be that of an early adulthood or middle age (as the Pickwickians are in the middle of). But both passages share a similar and somewhat unusual structure — they skip ahead in time to predict a future nostalgia from present events. Carroll's nostalgia comes "years afterwards," Dickens' takes place "many miles distant." And both ultimately portray this "melancholy" remembrance as positive, if bittersweet.

This bittersweet characterization of nostalgia is brought about through remarkably similar imagery in the two passages. Both Dickens and Carroll concentrate on images of light: Carroll describes "the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze," Dickens mentions "the looks that shone so brightly...the eyes we sought, their lustre." Carroll's image is explicitly that of a sunset, and Dickens' implies the same, with looks that "have ceased to glow" and eyes that "hid their lustre." In addition to this sunset imagery, both passages have foreboding images that predict the loss of this happy time. Carroll describes the "black shadows of the forest," and Dickens' descriptions all end in death — "grown cold," "in the grave." Both passages contrast the positive and the negative imagery to create the bittersweet effect attributed to nostalgia.

The depiction of nostalgia presented in these passages is an essentially unrealistic one. Memory, in each case, is presented as inviolate and photographic, two qualities which are necessarily untrue. Alice's photographic memory of the Knight is especially unlikely for a seven year old to retain, and Dickens' idealistic portrayal of memory "transport[ing] the sailor and the traveller thousands of miles away" is a little too idealistic to ring true. It is interesting, however, that these levels of (un)reality are relative, as the passage above from Through the Looking-Glass takes on a note of realism, when compared to the almost absurdly fantastic elements elsewhere in the novel, while the Pickwick passage seems more fantastic than the predominantly realist narrative.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers Lewis Carroll

Last Modified 22 March 2003