A Sketch by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy and American Notes (1877), Chapter XVI, "The Passage Home," p. 370. Wood-engraving, 3 ⅞ by 5 ⅜ inches (9.9 cm high by 13.8 cm wide), framed.

On the bright, breezy morning of June 7, the Coldens gave Dickens and Kate a farewell breakfast. They all drove to Jersey City, where they embarked on a steamer that was to take them to the George Washington, lying off Sandy Hook, and then to England. [Muzzio]

Passage Realized: The Voyage Home out of New Jersey

When all these means of entertainment failed, a sail would heave in sight: looming, perhaps, the very spirit of a ship, in the misty distance, or passing us so close that through our glasses we could see the people on her decks, and easily make out her name, and whither she was bound. For hours together we could watch the dolphins and porpoises as they rolled and leaped and dived around the vessel; or those small creatures ever on the wing, the Mother Carey’s chickens, which had borne us company from New York bay, and for a whole fortnight fluttered about the vessel’s stern. For some days we had a dead calm, or very light winds, during which the crew amused themselves with fishing, and hooked an unlucky dolphin, who expired, in all his rainbow colours, on the deck: an event of such importance in our barren calendar, that afterwards we dated from the dolphin, and made the day on which he died, an era. [Ch XVI, "The Passage Home," p. 371]

Commentary: Return to "The Age of Sail"

On 7 June, 1842, he had breakfast with some of his more steadfast American friends [including Diamond Edition illustrator Sol Eytinge, Junior]; then he and Catherine embarked upon the George Washington in order to begin their voyage home. [Ackroyd, 368]

As Peter Ackroyd notes in his biography of the novelist, Dickens and his wife had crossed the Atlantic to the New World in 1842 via the new British steam technology of the Cunard liner Britannia, but they returned to the Old World aboard an example of pre-Industrial Age technology, an American-registered sailing vessel the George Washington. After the stormy passage out aboard the steam-ship, the Dickenses had deliberately sought passage on a more stable and reliable packet-ship. The Nast illustration prominently describes the Caatskills and the channel of the Hudson River, in which a side-paddle-wheeler is gaining upon a brigantine, as viewed from the heights on the south side of the river; neither vessel, however, accurately reflects the ships by which the Dickenses arrived and departed from American shores with Catherine's maid, Anne Brown.

Nast does not attempt to realise Dickens's evoking the Ancient Mariner's shooting the blameless albatross in Coleridge's poem, the accompanying picture remains a relatively unfinished "sketch" in which the illustrator has developed neither the passengers and crew nor the vessel itself, and shows the sailing-ship George Washington as a mere child's toy in this bird's eye view of the various ships leaving the Hudson River for the Atlantic. Appropriately, the Dickenses arrived in America aboard an example of recent British transportation technology (an immense steam-ship with side paddle-wheels), the Britannia, the first vessel of the Cunard line, but made the return voyage on an American-registered sailing-ship. The shipping in the channel probably represents what one might have seen in the late sixties, with both wind-powered and paddle-wheel vessels. The error that Nast has made is that the packet ship George Washington was proportionately longer than the vessel with two sails; as a species of clipper, the Dickenses' vessel carried far more canvas — but this remains, as Nast suggests, a mere sketch to set the mood rather than recall in accurate detail the events of 7 June 1842.

Related Material

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. Chapter XVI, "The Passage Home." American Notes, Sketches by Boz, and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by A. B. Frost and Thomas Nast. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877. 346-50.

Dickens, Charles. Chapter XVI, "The Passage Home." American Notes and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by A. B. Frost and Gordon Thomson. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. 341-49.

Muzzio, Douglas. "When Boz Came to Town —Remembering Charles Dickens's first visit to New York." "Arts and Culture New York." CJ: City Journal. August 2018.

Created 27 May 2019

Last modified 12 June 2020