AN EXCURSION INTO CANADA WITH Charles Dickens
Here’s good Yuletide reading: the warm and lively story of a trip made to this country by the author of A Christmas Carol. For a picture of Canada a century ago—and a key to why much of it appalled Dickens — curl up with this
AT HALF-PAST NINE on an April morning in 1842, a locomotive with a tall funnelshaped smokestack, pulling a string of spindly railroad cars, puffed to a stop at the first, station out of Buffalo on the line to Niagara Falls. A smallish slender man of thirty jumped off, his olive-skinned face tense with excitement, and cupped a hand to his ear. 1 he Halls were still miles away, hut Charles Dickens characteristically couldn’t wait to catch the sound of their roar. And although he couldn’t, and didn’t, unt il the train got, right to Niagara, he tried again at every station.
Three months earlier Dickens and his pretty wife Kate had arrived in the United States for a visit, partly to be entertained by his admirers there and partly to gather material for a travel book. They had spent a few hours at Halifax after docking there en route to Boston but now they and their
secretary and Kate’s maid were on their way to spend a real visit in Canada before it was time to sail for England and home. They were to go from Niagara to Montreal by way of Toronto and Kingston, with a side trip to Quebec City. Because the American tour had been so hectic and exhausting, the idea was to have a restful holiday while they were in Canada an obvious impossibility for any party that included a man of Dickens’ energy.
Several American friends had warned him not to expect too much of the Falls, but when he saw them he said “Great God! How can any man
be disappointed in this!” He wasn’t equally delighted with everything he found in Canada. He thought the stores in Toronto were splendid, hut was horrified to learn that the losers in a recent election there had shot at the winners, and that one man had been killed and five wounded. Kingston itself was a disappointment; but he admired the penitentiary, where he saw a beautiful girl who’d stolen a horse under the most romantic circumstances and was serving a long term. At Quebec the garrison officers gave him a rousing lunch in the Citadel, but he didn’t have much chance to see the town. In Montreal he loathed his hotel, but had a wonderful time producing and acting in four plays, and somehow galvanized nervous amateurs into giving a lively show.
This busy Canadian holiday was the final outcome of a letter he’d got in the fall of 1841 from
Washington Irving, the creator of Rip van Winkle. Irving assured him he was so popular in America that a personal tour “would be a triumph . . . from one end of the States to the other.”
Dickens was already famous as the author of Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist; bul he couldn’t resist the glittering prospect of even more fame and adulation. Besides, he hoped to shame American publishers out of reprinting his work without paying him a cent, although several of them were making fortunes from it. And with a contract from his English publishers to write a book about his experiences, he and Kate and her maid sailed from Liverpool on January 4, 1842, in the little steam packet Britannia owned and operated by a Nova Scotian named Samuel Cunard.
The crossing, which turned out to be one of the
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
IN THE PHIZ TRADITION
roughest in years, took sixteen days. Dickens was seasick for the first five of them and Kate for six, and it was almost a relief when the Britannia ran aground at midnight on January 20, in the approaches to Halifax. She was quickly floated off again, lay at anchor for the rest of the night, and in :he morning steamed valiantly up harbor to the Cunard pier.
Dickens and the ship’s doctor immediately went ashore to have a feast of oysters but they’d no
sooner set foot on the pier than a well-dressed
stranger rushed panting up to them, shouting
Dickens’ name as he tore along. “The breathless man,” Dickens wrote to a friend, “introduces
hinself as the Speaker of the House of Assembly; will drag me away to his house; and will have a oarriage and his wife sent down for Kate, who is laid up with a hideously swollen face. Then he drags me up to the Governor’s house (Lord Falkland is Governor), and then Heaven knows where; concluding with both houses of parliament, which happen to meet for the session that very day.”
This forceful personage was Joseph Howe, the great Maritime editor and politician who later became one of the Fathers of Confederation. Dickens went with him to the opening of parliament and sat in an immense armchair beside the Speaker. He had all he could do to keep from smiling at the speech of some of the honorable members, which he thought very queer indeed. Afterward he and Howe had dinner together, and Howe drove him around to see Halifax.
Dickens liked the hillside look of it, and was particularly struck by two things that the Citadel didn’t seem to be quite finished, and that, most of the houses were built of wood; a strange sight to his English eyes. At five that afternoon, when certain of the Britannia’s passengers who’d eaten too many oysters and drunk too much champagne ashore had been brought back from the gutters where they were sleeping it off,
Dickens himself went ab>ard and the ship set sail for Boston and the anticipated “triumph.”
The tour of the States wasn’t the complete success Dickens expected. His plan for getting American publishers to stop printing his books without paying him didn’t work at all well, perhaps because it chiefly consisted of calling them thieves whenever he spoke at a big public banquet. In any case they went right on pirating his work and his attacks on them made him noticeably less a popular hero by the end of his visit, on April 26, 1842. On that day he and Kate, her maid, and
a solemn young secretary named George Putnam who’d been hired in Boston for ten dollars a week and board, arrived at Niagara from Buffalo and were rowed across to the Canadian side in a little ferryboat.
That spring was unseasonably cold in Canada. Navigation did not open on the Welland Canal until late in April, and the Quebec Mercury reported early in May that “new ice was formed,
fully the thickness of a dollar.” But Dickens and his party were snug and comfortable at the old Clifton House (it burned to the ground more than half a century later), which was so near the Falls their bedroom windows were dim with spray.
He was wildly happy to be on British soil again. “You cannot conceive,” he said in a letter home, “with what transports of joy I beheld an English sentinel —though he didn’t look much like one, I confess, with his boots outside his trousers and a great fur cap on his head.” And on their first night at Niagara Dickens was, as he put it, “taken dreadfully loyal after dinner,” and drank the Queen’s health in the first glass of port he’d tasted since he left England.
On the whole he was pleased with the Clifton House, but there was one thing about it that
worried him, the colonnades which “make it look so very light that it has exactly the appearance of a house of cards; and 1 live in bodily terror lest any man should venture to step out of a little observatory on the roof, and crush the whole structure with one stamp of his foot.”
Because it was so early in the season, they had the hotel almost to themselves. A few officers of the Niagara garrison and some of t he local people came to call, and were received in the big lowceilinged sitting room. Dickens was raffish in narrow grey trousers, dark tail coat, gaily colored vest and black silk stock. Kate wore a crinolined dress with a skin-tight bodice, looked as usual both modest and voluptuous, and helped him entertain the visitors. But they seldom stayed long, and for most of the week at the Clifton House Dickens was free to do as he pleased, which he’d never been while he was in the States.
He was positively obsessed by the Falls and spent his time looking for good places to see them fromthe edge of the great Horseshoe, the rocky shore below, from various distances downriver and once (it was a view that particularly delighted him), through the leaves of a tree on a nearby hill. Kate was less enthusiastic about anything than Dickens was about everything. But although she didn’t give the same absorbed attention to the Falls that he did, she joined him one evening in an experiment to find out how far the sound of the roar could carry no more than a mile, they decided, and then only when the air was still. Kate’s maid Anne wasn’t interested at all, and according to Dickens said grumpily: “It’s
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CONTINUED FROM PAGE 29
nothing but water, and there’s too much of that.”
On the morning of May 4 they left Niagara for Queenston by a road that passed what remained of the monument to General Brock. It had been blown up two years before by a man named Lett, in revenge for having been banished to the States for taking part in the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie in 1837. Dickens was much upset to see it still hadn’t been repaired. “It is now,” he said, “a melancholy ruin, with a long fragment of iron railing hanging dejectedly from its top, and waving to and fro like a wild ivy branch or broken vine stem.”
At Queenston Dickens forgot the neglected monument when a drunken recruit walked backwards off the dock and fell into the river, from which he was rescued in a disciplined manner by the ramrod-straight soldiers who were taking him to barracks. A few minutes later, at two o’clock, the steamer Transit chuffed briskly over from Lewiston on the American side, and the Dickens party went aboard for the afternoon run across Lake Ontario to Toronto.
The Transit wasn’t much more than a hundred feet long, and had less power in her one engine than many a modern automobile, but she had a great deal of distinction. Her master, Captain Hugh Richardson, ran her with such ceremony that until people along the Toronto waterfront objected to the noise, he used to signal her departure from the city by firing a small cannon. He saw to it that she was always scrubbed and polished, and fitted her out with a piano in the ladies’ cabin and good china, sterling silver and white linen in the dining saloon. He himself ushered the lady passengers in to meals, then took his place at the head of the table.
The Transit took just over four hours to cross the lake; and at half-past six, right on time, the Dickenses reached Toronto and registered at the North American Hotel—an ugly brick building at the northeast corner of Front and Yonge Streets. The hotel was torn down in the late 1890s and replaced by another ugly brick building, now the head office of the Toronto Transportation Commission.
The names of all arrivals at the North American were published in the Morning Star and Transcript, long since dead of sheer dullness (it printed interminable stories about Turkish politics and French tax laws, but practically no local news). That was how ordinary Torontonians learned on May 7, the day after Dickens went away, that “Mr. & Mrs. Charles Dickens (Boz), London, England” had been among them. It was all they ever did learn of the visit, apart from an item in the Examiner, the only other of Toronto’s half-dozen newspapers to mention the visit. The Examiner often carried as much as half a column of local news but didn’t live long either, and was absorbed by the Globe in 1855.
The Examiner noted on May 11 that “Mr. and Mrs. Dickens left this city on Friday in the steamer City of Toronto, Captain Dick, for Kingston.
The very short stay made by Boz prevented any public demonstration of respect, but all the leading persons of the city left their cards at his hotel —the Honorable the Chief Justice en-
tertained him at dinner, and a large party was invited in the evening to meet the distinguished strangers.”
Dickens was a stranger to the other leading persons, but not to the Chief Justice, Sir John Beverley Robinson. They’d met in England three years before, and Sir John had been greatly impressed. “Next me sat Boz,” he wrote in his diary the night they met, “the author of Pickwick, with whom I had much conversation after dinner. He is a young man, animated and agreeable.”
The city Dickens saw in the short
time he was there, from the evening of May 4 until noon on May 6, had a population of about fifteen thousand. He found it .“full of life and motion, bustle, business and improvement.” He said the streets were well-paved (they weren’t; some downtown corners were almost impossible to cross in wet weather because of the deep mud). He said the streets were lighted by gas, and so they were—but the gas burned so dimly the company that made it was forced out of business by public indignation five years later. He admired the stores on King Street,
which was then the main street, saying that some of them would do credit to London itself, but he didn’t add that window-shoppers were apt to have to dodge stray cows, like the red one “with short thick horns and her left ear split” that had wandered away from her owner’s place on Spadina Avenue in September 1841, and was still being advertised as missing in May 1842.
Although Dickens was pleased, or said he was, with the look of the town, he was horrified by the bigotry of its politics. In a letter to a friend he said “The wild and rabid toryism of Toronto is, I speak seriously, appalling.” What particularly appalled him was an outburst of political violence the year before, about which he probably heard at dinner with Sir John.
In an election in the spring of 1841 the Reform party candidates had beaten the Tories, who were backed by the Orange Order. As the winners paraded along King Street some Orangemen in a corner tavern opened fire on them with pistols. The victorious candidates weren’t even scratched, but one innocent bystander who’d just arrived from Ireland was shot dead, and five others were wounded. The Mayor, George Monro, had been asked beforehand to send police to keep order, but since Monro was not only a Tory himself but one of the defeated candidates, he had merely said that the Reformers could go to the devil for protection if they wanted it.
Eight of the Orangemen were promptly arrested by a company of British regular soldiers who came rushing up at the double, but were freed in court for lack of actual evidence as to who had fired the shots. The Examiner, a Reform paper, called the prisoners “as bloodthirsty looking men as ever disgraced the human form.” The Tory papers gave the impression that there had been a slight display of perfectly natural pique, during which a few spectators had carelessly got in the way of some quite understandable shooting. This would appear to be a slightly prejudiced view, since the incident was still news in Toronto when Dickens visited a year later.
The vessel in which the Dickens
party sailed from Toronto to Kingston was a larger but less elegant steamer than Captain Richardson’s Transit. The fare on the City of Toronto was only five dollars each, including meals and berth, and would have been reduced to two if they’d been willing to sleep on deck. Drinks on the other hand were expensive, and even the ordinary red and white wine served at breakfast cost almost as much as a deck passage. But Dickens was drinking “hardly anything” and was content with a glass of brandy and water now and then. He was far more interested to find that the steamer took on over a thousand barrels of flour at Cobourg —“a cheerful thriving little town.”
At eight the next morning they got to Kingston, and Dickens was so disappointed he didn’t even try to be polite when he wrote about it later. That year it was the capital of Canada, which led him to expect a pretty fine place. Instead he found it “a very poor town, rendered still poorer in the appearance of its market place by the ravages of a recent fire. Indeed it may be said of Kingston that one half of it appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up.”
He and Kate took rooms at Daly’s British American Hotel, which is still standing. As the secretary Putnam remembered years later, they were “most cordially received by the government officials, officers of the army, and the resident English population” —especially by a man named Derbishire, whom Dickens had known in England and who had a wonderful civil
service job which paid well and involved almost no work.
As soon as breakfast was over Dickens was taken driving to see the sights. The only thing he liked was the new penitentiary. He thoroughly approved of the system by which the prisoners worked at various trades instead of just breaking rocks as convicts did in England. And he was both impressed and fascinated when a beautiful slim girl of twenty, with a dark and roving eye, looked out at him through the bars of her cell in the women’s block.
Dickens learned that in 1838, when she was barely seventeen, she’d been a dispatch rider for a band of rebels led by a drunken adventurer named Van Rensellaer. These Patriots, as they called themselves, had apparently been inspired by William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion of the year before, but had prudently holed up on an island in the St. Lawrence. The beauty carried messages for them to confederates on the mainland. Sometimes she dressed as a girl, and hid the papers in her snug little stays. At other times she dressed as a boy, and then the hiding-place was the lining of her hat. As a boy she rode astride, which Dickens said admiringly “was nothing to her, for she could govern any horse that any man could ride, and could drive four-in-hand with the best whip in those parts.” But once when she had a particularly urgent message to deliver she made the mistake of stealing a fast horse. That was why she was in the penitentiary, where she’d spent almost three years when Dickens saw her.
A Bone-Shaking Ordeal
The following morning the Dickens party boarded the steamer Prescott for the run through the Thousand Islands. Although it took him through scenery that was later to become world famous, Dickens wrote about it afterward as if he’d only admired the view out of a sense of duty.
Perhaps this was because he was depressed by the thought of what lay ahead. There was no railway between Toronto and Montreal and travelers either had to go the whole way by stage coach, a bone-shaking ordeal, or else go partly by steamer and partly overland, as the Dickenses were doing. The Prescott went only as far as Dickinson’s Landing, at the beginning of the Long Sault Rapids. There they had to bypass the rapids by taking a stage coach to Cornwall and change to a steamer for Coteau du Lac—a frightful prospect considering the kind of coach it was.
It looked like a very large and very dirty milk wagon, with flapping canvas sides and no glass in the windows. The seats were uncushioned planks, and nine passengers were jammed into each of them although they were really too narrow for six. The springs were so stiff that every time the clumsy wheels went over a bump the whole coach jumped as if it had been hit by a sledge hammer. This mobile torture chamber took three hours to cover the twelve miles from Dickinson’s Landing to Cornwall. Dickens didn’t complain about their sufferings, but a Mrs. Traill, who’d made the same journey a little earlier, noted that when she got out of the coach she was “dreadfully fatigued . . . being literally bruised black and blue.”
At Cornwall, which they reached at ten o’clock, they went aboard the steamer. At dawn, in a violent thunderstorm and driving rain, they sailed down Lake St. Francis—which Dickens remembered chiefly because they passed a gigantic raft of logs “with
some thirty or forty wooden houses upon it, and at least as many flagmasts, so that it looked like a nautical street.” At Côteau they landed and took another stage coach for a fourhour jolting over the road to the village of Les Cascades. They changed again from coach to the Lachine boat — this time to a filthy little steamer with one tiny airless cabin and a rusty iron deck with no guard rail around it.
Sir Richard Jackson, Commander of the British army in Canada, had sent his own private four-in-hand carriage and two of his smart young aides-decamp to meet them at Lachine. In
it, as Dickens wrote with unconcealed delight, they “came in grand style to Montreal.”
When they got there late in the ^afternoon of May 11, 1842, they went to the rooms that had been reserved for them at Rasco’s Hotel, on St. Paul Street East at the corner of St. Claude. The building is still there, with a tablet on it to commemorate Dickens’ visit. Although it’s now shabby and hemmed in by the sprawling Bonsecours Market, it was then far and away the most fashionable hotel in Montreal.
Dickens, who loved nothing better than a good inn, called Rasco’s “the worst hotel in the whole wide world.” What apparently gave him this low opinion of it was the slow room service and the darkness and discomfort of the bedrooms. But Dickens stoically endured the upstairs gloom and the long waits for hot water and towels, because he’d come to Montreal to do something he liked so much he could even put up with Rasco’s for the sake of it.
Eyebrows From New York
On the way across from Liverpool he’d made friends with Lord Mulgrave, a young army officer coming out to join his regiment in Canada. Mulgrave was badly stage-struck, and so was Dickens, who’d written two plays that were produced in London and had directed and acted in several amateur productions as well. Dickens had promised Mulgrave to come to Montreal when his United States visit was over and stagemanage an evening of theatricals to be put on by the garrison officers and their ladies.
The author had been looking eagerly forward to this tremendous treat ever since. It was decided that the military amateurs were to do three plays — Morton’s comedy, A Roland for an Oliver, a farce called Deaf as a Post, by Poole, and a very short piece called Past Two O’Clock in the Morning, by Mathew. Dickens was also to act in all of them, and he’d taken the precaution of having a flaxen wig and a pair of special comic eyebrows sent up from New York for his part of Snobbington in Past Two O’Clock. He wasn’t sure such things could be had in Montreal. When Mulgrave called on him at Rasco’s, Dickens was all ready to go to work.
The Theatre Royal, at the east end of St. Paul Street, had been rented for the night of May 25 and re-named the Queen’s Theatre for that one occasion. Dickens wrote to a friend about the rehearsals: “I would give something
if you could only stumble into that very dark and dusty theatre in the daytime (at any minute between twelve and three) and see me with my coat off, the stage manager and universal director, urging impracticable ladies and impossible gentlemen on the very confines of insanity.”
When Dickens wasn’t at the theatre, he and Kate were being entertained in the houses of their new friends or taken sight-seeing around Montreal. He thought the buildings were fine, and said the city was “backed by some bold heights, about which there are charm-
ing rides and dr:vc;s.” He found the streets rather narrow and crooked and remarked that this was true of “most French towns of any age.” But he only gave two paragraphs in his travel book to describing the city, and was obviously so absorbed with directing and rehearsing the plays that nothing else interested him very much.
The florid acting style of (he 1840s was exactly suited to Dickens, who often behaved offstage as though he were bathed in limelight and playing to a vast audience. Yet strangely enouf h he almost missed a wonderful
chance to make a grand gesture just before the curtain went up on the great night.
The Governor-General, Sir Charles Bagot, was to be there; and Dickens wrote that when he and Lord Mulgrave were going out to the front of the theatre to receive him “the regular prompter followed us in agony with four tall candlesticks with wax candles in them, and besought us with a bleeding heart to carry two apiece, in accordance with all the precedents.”
Because these were “private theatricals” as the playbill called them,
no seats were sold and admission was by invitation only. A long table of refreshments had been set up in the lobby and after the show there was a buffet supper for the four hundred guests. (Dickens characteristically said there were between five and six hundred.) The whole affair was so very social that the reviewer from the Herald concentrated on the audience rather than the actors“His Excellency was dressed in a plain blue coat with a star on the left breast.”
But Deaf as a Post was such a dismal failure that the Montreal Herald’s man
felt obliged to say that it “was nol so well sustained as its predecessors;’ the reviewer from the Transcript agreed with him, although he praised everything and everyone else, and especially Dickens—“In that part where the expression of his madness bordered or the tragic, he was peculiarly happy.”
Dickens played a comic servant ir the farce that flopped, and a juvenile part in the main piece. In Past Two O’Clock he had the lead as Mr. Snobbington. He warmed his hands at a real fireplace on the stage (it was “blazing away like mad”), and wore two nightcaps (“one with a tassel and one of flannel”), a dressing gown, draf tights, anel the special wig and eyebrows he’d ordered from New York. “I really do believe that I was very funny,” he wrote afterward. “At leasl I know that I laughed heartily at myself.”
Except for the farce, in which Kate had a part and played “devilish well” according to Dickens, the evening went off pretty well. It was decided to repeat it three nights later, as a public performance with paid admission. Meanwhile all concerned were tired out, and Lord Mulgrave suggested that he and the Dickenses should go tc Quebec and spend Friday there, to seethe town and meet the officers of the garrison.
They left Montreal at six on Thursday evening in the steamer Lady Colborne, and arrived at six the next morning. “They were accompanied,” the Quebec Mercury’s account said, “by the Earl of Mulgrave . . . who. since their arrival in Canada East, has shown them every kindness which his rank and station enabled him to offer. They proceeded on landing to the house of Dr. Fisher, where they breakfasted and then set out to view the Citadel, where they met with every attention from the officers of the Grenadier Guards, now forming its garrison. Having viewed the workf and enjoyed the beautiful prospect they command, they visited the Plains ot Abraham and took a cursory view ot the city. After the excursion they partook of a Déjeuner à la Fourchette with the officers of the Grenadiers, and then returned to the steamboat which was to convey them to Montreal.”
When Actresses Weren’t Ladies
The buffet lunch for Dickens was no mere snack. As served in the officers’ mess of a smart regiment in those days it was a regular banquet. Mess waiters stood rigidly at the sideboard, ready to carve huge roasts of beef, vast veal-and-ham pies, whole salmon jel lied in aspic. Other mess waiters went round with heavy silver trays on which immense decanters of the regiment’s best brandy were surrounded by huge cut-glass tumblers. So much was eaten and so many toasts were drunk that it took a good man to walk away from a Déjeuner à la Fourchette. Many a guest had to sleep for a while before he could leave.
Still, Dickens may quite possibly have lived up to his claim that he was drinking hardly anything; because when they got back to Montreal he was going to have a hard day’s work getting ready for the performance that night. It had been perfectly all right, for Kate and the other ladies to act in front of friends who’d come by invitation, but they couldn’t be allowed to sully themselves by acting in front of total strangers who paid to get in. Consequently they had to be replaced by professional actresses, and these had to be rehearsed in one day. Besides, Dickens was putting on a new farce instead of the one that had been so disastrous on Wednesday—some-
thing called High Life Below Stair by an author whose name is mercifull forgotten, in which Dickens played a ¡ footman.
He was too shrewd theatrically to think the Wednesday performance deserved the praise it got or an encore. The real reason for the repeat perj formance, as Dickens said in a letter, j was that, “It is their custom here, to j prevent heartburnings in a very heart: burning town, to repeat the performances in public.”
Saturday night came. The Herald and the Transcript may have sent their reviewers, but not a word about the Í show was printed in either paper. There had been a short paragraph in the Herald that morning pointing out that it was positively the last chance Montrealers would have to see Dickens, because he had “secured berths for himself, his lady and servants, in the packet ship which sails from New York for England on the 7th June”—but that was all. And the only reference that Dickens made to it afterward in his letters was the casual remark that this time he’d made poor Putnam do the prompting, instead of using the Theatre Royal’s regular man.
Rule Britannia Said Good-by
On the morning of Monday May 30, 1842, the Dickenses left Montreal, crossed the river by ferry to Laprairie, I and boarded the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railway’s cars for St. Johns in Quebec. It was a sixteen-mile trip over rails made of wood, with long flat | strips of iron spiked to their tops to give them a wear-resisting surface. The cars were pulled by the first locomotive Canada ever had — a wash - boiler shaped engine so small and weak it was scornfully nicknamed the Kitten. The journey took nearly two hours.
At St. Johns they had to wait for the steamer Burlington, that would take them back to the United States by way of Lake Champlain. Meanwhile they were entertained by the officers of the 85th Regiment, which had been transferred from Montreal two days earlier. When the Burlington arrived, the officers all went down to the dock to see them off, and burst into Rule Britannia as the ship pulled away.
The visit to Canada was over. Dickens, who devoted less than one of the eighteen chapters of his travel book to it, doesn’t seem to have felt particularly sorry. Now, as he said in the last letter he wrote from Montreal, he was going “home—home— home - - home — home — home — HOME!!!!!!!!!!!” ★