The great cataract of Niagara was all that he had hoped it would be. Blinded by its mist and deafened by its mighty roar, Dickens stood spellbound by the spectacle, amazed, he said, “How near to my Creator I was standing.” The buoyant `Boz’ [Dicken’s nickname] looked on in awe, elated by the “peaceful eternity” of nature in one of its more gigantic forms. It was particularly impressive from the Canadian side of the river where Dickens was delighted to be.
In 1842 Charles Dickens, the celebrated novelist and seasoned traveller, visited North America. He had been “haunted by visions of America” and intrigued by the prospect of touring the great Republic. His interest in a trip across the Atlantic was considerably stimulated by a letter he had received from the American writer, Washington Irving, who declared that Dickens would be “a triumph from one end to the States to the other.”
Dickens was anxious to begin the trip in spite of the prospect of a stormy crossing, so he and wife Catherine departed Liverpool on the steamship Britannia on the 2nd of January, 1842. After a rough voyage in which, he said, the little vessel was often “stopped, staggered and shivered by the angry sea,” they arrived in Halifax on the 19th. “I wish you could have seen the crowds cheering the inimitable in the streets.” This was Dickens’ first use of the word ‘inimitable’ to describe himself, “as if his reception in Canada and America now somehow justified it.”
Following a short but stirring Canadian welcome, Charles and Catherine proceeded down the coast to Boston from where they commenced their triumphal tour through the United States of America.
Dickens was rapturously received wherever he went and his first impressions of the country were quite favourable. He found the people “friendly, frank, kind and warm-hearted.” They were also self-righteous and surprisingly insecure with a “constant appetite for praise.” However, as time passed Dickens became somewhat disillusioned because of the people’s preoccupation with money and business, their seeming lack of humour and a “tyranny of public opinion” fostered by a “rancid press.”
While he was in the United States, Dickens used every opportunity to urge the abolition of slavery and to advocate an international copyright to prevent the pirating of British writers’ works by American magazines. His audiences had not come to hear about these matters, and over time they gradually began to resent him for raising them. Four months later in early May, Charles and Catherine sailed from Cleveland across the lake to Buffalo, then travelled by train to Niagara Falls, New York where they crossed into Canada and the “English side” of the river. Dickens felt free at last from the inquisitive press and the prying eyes of curious spectators who mauled and mobbed their honoured foreign guest without respite. He found Canadians less prying and pushy for which Dickens was thankful. Now they could rest. Despite this Dickens refused to comment on the differences between the two countries stating, “I wish to abstain from instituting any comparison, or drawing any parallel whatever, between the social features of the United States and those of the British Possessions in Canada. For this reason, I shall confine myself to a very brief account of our journeyings in the latter territory.”
When they arrived at the railroad station in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Dickens saw “two great white clouds rising up from the depths of the earth.” He was frantic to see the wonder of the Falls up close and off they wildly raced. Dickens literally “dragged Kate down the deep and slippery path” that led to the ferry boat which took them to the very foot of the Falls. “There was a bright rainbow at my feet and from that I looked up to – great Heaven! to what a “fall of the bright green water.” Before him “was Beauty unmixed with any sense of Terror.” The stimulation of the sight and sound caused him to perspire freely.
The Dickens booked rooms at an inn that overlooked the Falls and spent the next ten days in complete relaxation. Charles was entranced by the Falls, and came each day to stare and marvel at its magnificence. The sound and sight of the “vague immensity” as it eased over the edge then plunged down the sheer rock face, conjured up an “image of the eternal.” It recalled for him another image, that of his dear departed sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, whom he had loved and whose memory he cherished all of his life. He believed her spirit looked down on him from this eternal place as a result of which the site became sacred and sanctified in his mind.
As well as Niagara Falls the Dickens visited Toronto and Kingston. He visited the jail when he passed through the latter city in 1842 and recorded that he saw this “beautiful girl of twenty who had been in jail for several years.” She had, he wrote, “quite a lovely face though there was a lurking devil in her bright eyes which looked out pretty sharply from between her prison bars.” The young woman had acted as a courier for William Lyon Mackenzie and his compatriots when they occupied Navy Island. When on one occasion she attempted to steal a horse, she was caught, convicted as a rebel and jailed.
While Dickens was in Montreal he produced, directed and acted in three plays, two comedies and a farce of which he modestly declared, “I really do believe I was very funny.” Shortly after this acting interlude Charles and Catherine visited Quebec City which he found entrancing.
“The steamboats to Quebec perform the journey in the night; that is to say they leave Montreal at six in the evening and arrive at Quebec at six next morning. We made this excursion during our stay in Montreal (which exceeded a fortnight) and were charmed by its interest and beauty. The impression made upon the visitor by this Gibraltar of America: its giddy heights; its citadel suspended as it were in the air; its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways; and the splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn: is at once unique and lasting. It is a place not to be forgotten or mixed up in the mind with other places or altered for a moment in the crowd of scenes a traveller can recall. Apart from the realities of this most picturesque city, there are associations clustering about it which would make a desert rich in interest. The dangerous precipice along whose rocky front Wolfe and his brave companions climbed to glory; the Plains of Abraham where he received his mortal wound; the fortress so chivalrously defended by Montcalm; and his soldier’s grave, dug for him while yet alive by the bursting of a shell; are not the least among them among the gallant incidents of history. That is a noble Monument too and worthy of two great nations which perpetuates the memory of both brave generals and on which their names are jointly written.”
“The city is rich in public institutions and in Catholic churches and charities, but it is mainly in the prospect from the site of the Old Government House and from the Citadel that its surpassing beauty lies. The exquisite expanse of country, rich in field and forest, mountain-height and water, which lies stretched out before the view, with miles of Canadian villages glancing in long white streaks, like veins along the landscape; the motley crowd of gables, roofs, and chimney tops in the old hilly town immediately at hand; the beautiful St. Lawrence sparkling and flashing in the sunlight; and the tiny ships below the rock from which you gaze, whose distant rigging looks like spiders’ webs against the light, while casks and barrels on their decks dwindle into toys, and busy mariners become so many puppets; all this framed by a sunken window in the fortress and looked at from the shadowed room within, forms one of the brightest and most enchanting pictures that the eye can rest upon.”
Dickens found Canada delightful after the disappointment of the United States. On occasion it was a little too Tory for his liking and the inns left much to be desired – one in Montreal being the worst he had ever encountered – but on the whole he found it a pleasant surprise.
In His Own Words
“Canada has held and always will retain a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise alike in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the busy quays of Montreal; the vessels taking in their cargoes and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, roads, and public works, all made TO LAST; the respectability and character of the public journals; and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn: were very great surprises. The steamboats on the lakes, in their conveniences, cleanliness, and safety; in the gentlemanly character and bearing of their captains; and in the politeness and perfect comfort of their social regulations; are unsurpassed even by the famous Scotch vessels, deservedly so much esteemed at home. The inns are usually bad; because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States, and the British officers, who form a large portion of the society of every town, live chiefly at the regimental messes: but in every other respect, the traveller in Canada will find as good provision for his comfort as in any place I know.”
From Quebec City they travelled to New York where they embarked for home on the George Washington on the 7th of June, arriving back in Liverpool on the 29th of June.
Dickens died at 58 on June 9th, 1870 from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. People world-wide mourned the death of a friend and a creative genius whose wonderful novels populated by unforgettable characters continue to bless us everyone.
– altered by Hystoria