decorated initil 'D' ickens himself thought of the new weekly All the Year Round as a continuation of his previous weekly, Household Words. Nonetheless, the new periodical's emphasis on fiction, both short stories and novels in serial, contrasts sharply with with the former's crusading journalism on issues ranging from public health and sanitation to education, with far less attention to fiction; indeed, the only Dickens novel thus serialised was the relatively short Hard Times for These Times. For the new weekly's Christmas numbers Dickens experimented with "framed tales," novella-length stories which he could initiate and conclude, but to which other writers using other voices could contribute, thereby freeing him for larger projects.

In Dickens and the Short Story (1982), Deborah A. Thomas connects the narrator of the Christmas piece for 1854 in Household Words, The Seven Poor Travellers, with the narrative voice of The Uncommercial Traveller sketches that Dickens developed in 1860 for All the Year Round:

The narrator here is depicted simply as an idly contemplative figure, a "Traveller myself, though an idle one" (CS, p. 69), reminiscent of the contemplative personalities that preside over Dickens' Christmas sketches in 1850 and 1851 and anticipatory of the figure of the Uncommercial Traveller. . . (72)

Perhaps the origin of the persona's actual name in the All the Year Round series of essays and sketches which began on 28 January 1860 may be traced to a speech Dickens gave to the Commercial Travellers' School, London, on 22 December 1859. His introductory note on the persona suggests that he travels for humanitarian rather than commercial interests, but mimics the language of the travelling businessman in the first essay, "His General Line of Business":

Allow me to introduce myself — first negatively.

No landlord is my friend and brother, no chambermaid loves me, no waiter worships me, no boots admires and envies me. No round of beef or tongue or ham is expressly cooked for me, no pigeon-pie is especially made for me, no hotel-advertisement is personally addressed to me, no hotel-room tapestried with great-coats and railway wrappers is set apart for me, no house of public entertainment in the United Kingdom greatly cares for my opinion of its brandy or sherry. When I go upon my journeys, I am not usually rated at a low figure in the bill; when I come home from my journeys, I never get any commission. I know nothing about prices, and should have no idea, if I were put to it, how to wheedle a man into ordering something he doesn't want. As a town traveller, I am never to be seen driving a vehicle externally like a young and volatile pianoforte van, and internally like an oven in which a number of flat boxes are baking in layers. As a country traveller, I am rarely to be found in a gig, and am never to be encountered by a pleasure train, waiting on the platform of a branch station, quite a Druid in the midst of a light Stonehenge of samples.

And yet—proceeding now, to introduce myself positively—I am both a town traveller and a country traveller, and am always on the road. Figuratively speaking, I travel for the great house of Human Interest Brothers, and have rather a large connection in the fancy goods way. Literally speaking, I am always wandering here and there from my rooms in Covent-garden, London—now about the city streets: now, about the country by-roads — seeing many little things, and some great things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others.

These are my chief credentials as the Uncommercial Traveller. [pp. 1-2]

An explorer of the human heart, so to speak, the narrator of the last piece of the first series, "The Italian Prisoner" (almost but not quite the authentic voice of Dickens himself, questioning his own Liberal assumptions in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny), however, lacks the gentle melancholy and world-weariness of the voice of those Christmas sketches of the 1850s, even though he possesses that persona's detached sympathy and observational powers. Nor does he adopt the strident pose of the social crusader from his columns in Household Words; although he writes in the first person, there is more genial commentary and dispassionate reportage and less burning indignation. Nevertheless, traces of the young Liberal who reported the pro-reform speeches of Lord John Russell thirty years before are glimpsed in the older narrator's concern for the poor and oppressed, such as the hapless Giovanni Carlavero in "The Italian Prisoner."

However, the tone and construction of the story suggest that it is intended to taken as a form of fiction rather than as a narrative essay, as only the titular character is identified by name, as if the journalist is transforming the benevolent Englishman and the Italian advocate of dubious ethics into types, avoiding Christian and surnames to protect them or memories of them. In a letter dated 25 January 1861 "To Mrs. Cowden Clarke," Dickens specifically identified "Poor Lord Dudley Stuart" (Letters 9: 375) as the "generous Englishman" of the tale, and had evidently on personal terms with this noble supporter of Liberal causes abroad since 1843, as we may judge from a letter he wrote Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart on 16 April 1844 (Letters 4: 107). To make his altruistic Liberal more middle-class and less aristocratic, Dickens does not merely fail to identify the Englishman by name; to make his character's sacrifice on behalf of Carlavero more significant, Dickens specifically states that "He was not a conventionally rich Englishman—very from from that—but he had a spare fifty pounds at the banker's. He resolved to risk it" (186). The actual Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart (1803—1854) was thoroughly noble in both senses: the son of a marquess and of a banking heiress (Frances Coutts), he married a princess (Christine Bonaparte); he attended Cambridge, and subsequently sat in the Commons as the member for Arundel, Sussex, being one of the foremost supporters of the First Reform Bill; later, he sat as the Member for Marleybone, London (see Oxford DNB. In other words, the persona makes a significant alteration in the character of the Englishman to make him more appropriate as the story's representative of enlightened, English parliamentary democracy, and more of a foil to the autocratic establishment that has imprisoned Carlavero. How well this subterfuge worked one wonders since Dickens adds, after identifying Coutts Stuart to Mrs. Cowden Clarke: "as I dare say I have no need to tell you" (375).

Despite the fact that the story occurs in the bad old days of autocracy in the Italian peninsula, the reader is aware of the more enlightened, Liberal-dominated, Risorgimento era in which the story is being told. The unjust and arbitrary treatment of the prisoner recalls all the iniquities of foreign and papal rule in the Italian peninsula, when a small group of privileged aristocrats controlled all cultural and political institutions, in contrast to the model of urban and middle-class democracy emerging in the state of Piedmont, the very state in which Dickens had chosen to live in 1844—45. Presumably either Genoa or Milan is the city to which the Englishman moves after providing the advocate with the initial hundred pounds: "The Englishman was then obliged to change his residence to another and more famous town in the North of Italy" (185), although what motivates this move (other than the necessities of the narrative) is never made clear. Shortly (in March 1861), the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, Victor Emanuel II, would be proclaimed by the unification parliament meeting in Turin "King of Italy" (1861-1868)

The central figures of the story, the enlightened English Liberal who continually fears he is being duped and the pathetic Giovanni Carlavero, powerless and brutally treated victim of a faceless and oppressive regime, are connected with the gigantic, unwieldy bottle whose progress from Italy to England dominates the latter part of the story. In the present, like its donor when the Englishman first encounters him in prison, the bottle is bound and (at least, originally) appears to contain something of value:

His countenance impressed the Englishman as having nothing in common with the faces of the malefactors with whom he was associated . . . . (184)

Again, the reader is left to trust the judgment of the Englishman and the veracity of the narrator. None of the sorts of crimes "in the Newgate Calendar and out of it" (185) seems to apply to the hapless prisoner; whatever his crime—and we are led to believe it involves some Liberal cause or action—the Englishman and we never have confirmed. All his attempts at uncovering Carlavero's true story provoke nothing but official "evasion, refusal, and ridicule" (185), tactics that the story itself replicates, even to the extent of not identifying what the Advocate did with the Englishman's money (indeed, the reader like the narrator and the Englishman is left to construct his own narrative about Carlavero's supposed "crime" and the disposition of the funds requested by the Italian attorney). Later, although liberated, Carlavero never gives up his secret; he was (in the insistent phrase of one functionary in the pay of the old regime) "particularly recommended" (184)—but by whom or for what the Englishman, the narrator, and in turn the reader never fully learn. In passing, the narrator comments that the prisoner "was a political offender, having been concerned in the then last rising" (183), and that is all. In fact, we never learn how the narrator acquired these "facts"; we must have faith in him, and take him for a reliable source of information, even though we suspect that he—like us—is the subject of some imposture. Like the bottle he sends in gratitude to the tender-hearted liberator back in England, Carlavero is silent about the antecedent causes of his incarceration. In the end, what seems to matter to the narrator is the genuineness of Carlavero's emotional response when he hears the Uncommercial Traveller pronounce the name of the man responsible for his release: his tears and prostrate posture betray a depth of emotion that we are to take as confirmation of his being a "true" rather than a false fellow ("carl").

Ironically, after the narrator has shepherded his charge through all sorts of dangers upon the road and at customs houses (symbols of the impersonal tyranny of petty governments), the "wine of the country" and of Carlavero's gratitude has turned to vinegar. And yet, at the story's conclusion, what matters is not what the substance contained in the immense bottle actually is but what it represents to donor and recipient. Like the generous Englishman, the narrator has been true to his charge—his promise has stood the tests of tribulation. To the kindly benefactor the gigantic Bottle serves as a centre-piece for his table, and contains (at least, according to the noble Englishman) not common Italian vinegar but vintage "Claret" (191). Whether it is or is not a fine wine is unimportant, for the gift like the release of its donor some years before has reaffirmed the Englishman's trust in humanity.

The genial Liberal reminds the reader of a long line of such Dickensian humanitarians, including Mr. Brownlow of Oliver Twist and the Cheeryble brothers of Nicholas Nickleby. His Liberal and humanitarian convictions are sorely tried by the Advocate's requests for money, which to him—and to us—smack of some sort of scam or confidence trick. The turning point in the story occurs when faith in humanity prompts the Englishman, in spite of his suspicions, to contribute once again to the cause of the prisoner's liberation, when he was in very act of mailing the letter of refusal. Like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, the Englishman of the tale finds that he can take no delight in life when he is conscious that his action might alleviate a fellow-creature's suffering. His Romantic response to the "exquisitely blue" sky and the "Divinely beautiful" (186) Mediterranean impels him—like George Gordon, Lord Byron, who lived in both Genoa and Venice before dying for the cause of Greek independence at Missolonghi in 1832—to believe in the moral worth of those who live in close association with these natural blessings. This humanitarian response breaks through his self-consciousness and typically English reserve, that sense of containment and isolation from one's fellow beings that dominates the misanthropic Scrooge at the opening of A Christmas Carol.


Dickens, Charles. "The Italian Prisoner." No. XVII in The Uncommercial Traveller and Hunted Down. The Works of Charles Dickens in Thirty Volumes. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, n. d. Vol. 28: pp. 181-191. (Note: The Uncommercial Traveller was first published as a collection of 17 pieces, including "The Italian Prisoner," in volume form by Chapman and Hall in 1861).

Majer, Gerald. "New Wine, Old Bottle?" Dickens's 'The Italian Prisoner'." Paper delivered at the Victorian Studies in Italy Conference, Genoa. University of Genoa. 15 June 2007.

Piglionica, Anna Maria. "A Tale of a Bottle of Wine." Paper delivered at the Victorian Studies in Italy Conference, Genoa. University of Genoa. 15 June 2007.

Storey, Graham, Margaret Brown, and Kathleen Tillotson (eds.). The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 9 (1859-1861). Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

"Stuart, Lord Dudley Coutts." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online version. Oxford: Oxford U. P. Retrieved 26/07/2007. http://www.oxforddnb,com/articles/26/26701-article.html?back=

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Tillotson, Kathleen (ed.) The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 4 (1844-1846). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

"The Uncommercial Traveller." Wikipedia. Retrieved 26/07/2007.

Last modified 28 August 2023