Dickens was from childhood an avid, even compulsive, walker. He once wrote. “I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.” Scarcely a day went by that Dickens didn’t flee his desk and take to the streets of London and its suburbs. He routinely walked as many as 20 miles a day, and once set out at 2 a.m. to walk from his house in London to his country residence in Gad’s Hill, Kent, 30 miles away. As several of his walking companions described it, he had a distinctive “swinging” gait. And, like many a serious runner of today, he “made a practice of increasing his speed when ascending a hill,” according to his friend Marcus Stone.
Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade. A letter from Paris to a family friend, the Reverend Edward Tagart, begins innocently enough, “I have been seeing Paris.” But what follows is a foot tour of the city that is characteristically Dickensian: “Wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert-rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces and Wine Shops. In my unoccupied fortnight of each month, every description of gaudy and ghastly sight has been passing before me in rapid Panorama.”
But Dickens’s walks played another, more important role in his life. They were, in a sense, acts of self-preservation. “If I could not walk far and fast,” he once confessed, “I think I should just explode and perish.” Unlike his contemporary, Anthony Trollope, who claimed he reeled off 3,000 words each morning before breakfast, Dickens found composition to be hard, painful work. The hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously, and walking served as a kind of safety valve.
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Booknotes: June 2010