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Dickens in Canada Goldie | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

Montreal Dickens Fellowship
for the best of times


Originally published in: Dickens Quarterly 19, 3 in September 2002
by: Goldie Morgentaler

On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 26, 1842, Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, on the last leg of their North American tour. By that time, Dickens was a disillusioned man, recovering from a failed love affair with the United States, which had disappointed his Utopian fantasies by being uncouth, unmannerly, slave-ridden, overly sensitive to criticism, and overly intrusive into the private lives of the Dickenses. In Canada, Dickens found peace. As he wrote from Niagara Falls on April 29th: “To say anything about this wonderful place, would be sheer nonsense. It far exceeds my most sanguine expectations,-- though the impression on my mind has been, from the first, nothing but Beauty and Peace”(Letters 216). And in American Notes he wrote: “I never stirred in all that time [i.e. the nine days of his stay at Niagara] from the Canadian side, whither I had gone at first. I never crossed the river again; for I knew there were people on the other shore, and in such a place it is natural to shun strange company” (229). The people on the other shore were, of course, Americans, and Dickens, prompted by the beauty of the Falls, had decided to embrace Canada -- on the rebound, as it were.

Dickens had not originally come to North America with any intention of preferring the British part of the continent to the American. On the contrary, he had crossed the Atlantic with preconceptions about Canada as fixed and unrealistic as the preconceptions he held about the United States. But these preconceptions tended in the opposite direction: Where he had believed that America would be a vibrant shining example of the best that democracy could offer, he had thought of Canada -- to the extent that he thought of it at all -- as a backwater. He admits as much in American Notes, where he writes that he had arrived in Canada expecting to find a country “left behind in the strides of advancing society, something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep . . .”(243). In fact, he was so worried about the supposed backwardness of everything in Canada that he despaired of finding the necessary accouterments for the plays that he had been asked to stage when he got to Montreal. Writing in April to C.C. Fenton, Dickens reported waking in a cold sweat in the dead of night to find himself surrounded by imaginary barbers who assured him that there were no Flaxen Wigs or Eyebrows to be got anywhere in Canada (Letters 216).

Just how insignificant Dickens thought Canada to be, can be seen in his correspondence prior to coming to Niagara. In letter after letter, he speaks of making “a run into” Canada, as though half a chunk of continent was just so much butter. For instance, writing to Charles Sumner on March 13, 1842, he twice repeats the phrase, “we shall run into Canada,” the second time, adding by way of inducement that Sumner join him, “Don’t you think you could come to Buffalo -- stay at Niagara with us -- and run into Canada to see some of the pleasant Englishmen thereabout?” (127, 128). Writing the next day to C.C. Fenton, he speaks of making “a hasty trip into Canada,” (130). To Frederick Dickens he writes “from thence [Buffalo] we run into Canada, and so return to New York” (148). The phrase recurs in a letter to Macready:“ A run into Canada follows of course, and then -- let me write the word in capitals -- we turn HOME”(159). And it is repeated one last time in a letter to T.N. Talfourd: “Towards the end of April we shall go round by the lakes to Niagara -- then run into Canada -- and return, please God, on the 7th of June by the George Washington Packet Ship from New York” (164).

The mantra-like repetition of the phrase “a run into Canada,” the hastiness and lack of consequence that it implies, were clearly powered by the Dickens’s increasing homesickness as he neared the end of his North American tour, but the phrase also indicates an assumption, on Dickens’s part, that there was not much in Canada that would be worth seeing, that to his mind the country was little more than a kind of second-rate England that must be dutifully but quickly experienced before Dickens could return home to the real thing.

Once arrived on Canadian soil, however, Dickens’s opinion of Canada rose in the same proportion as his opinion of the United States had sunk, and he was ripe for falling in love with anything there that reminded him of home. Meeting up with two English officers at Niagara, he exclaimed in a letter to Forster: “There were two English officers with us (ah! what gentlemen, what noblemen of nature they seemed). . .” (Letters 210). By the end of his trip, his praise for Canada was wholehearted: “Few Englishmen are prepared to find [Canada] what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down; and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system, but health and vigor throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise” (AN 243). As opposed to the republic to the south, of course.

Dickens’s attitude towards Canada was influenced by a number of factors -- disillusionment with the Americans, homesickness, travel-fatigue -- but the one that is perhaps most interesting has to do with the way that travel to foreign lands tends to define personal identity as synonymous with nationality. Every journey is to some extent an exercise in self-definition. We travel to be taken out of ourselves, but also to reaffirm who we are by contrast to those whose lands we visit, and that reaffirmation often occurs in nationalistic terms. In this sense, travel both broadens the mind and narrows it. Dickens is a perfect case in point. As Peter Ackroyd has observed, nothing brought out the Englishman in Dickens so much as his being away from England. (Ackroyd 365). After his disappointment with the United States, Dickens felt it an undeniable comfort and consolation that Canada was British, and therefore, by definition, not American. This certainly contributed to his favorable impression of the country.

I would suggest yet another reason for Dickens’s positive attitude towards Canada, and this has to do with the nature of the country itself. Canada has traditionally been seen -- by itself and the rest of the world -- as a low-profile, spam-in-the-sandwich kind of country, a grey presence inhabiting the northern section of North America, without discernible distinction from either its British roots or its American neighbours. A colony first of the French, then of the British, situated in the shadow of its huge southern neighbour, subsumed under but not denoted by the adjective “American,” Canada has elicited from outsiders few comments as an entity in itself. Unlike the United States, it has never supplied the world with a definable image of itself, and so, like a blank slate, has permitted the inscription of whatever interpretation a visitor would like to foist on it. The result has been that nineteenth-century visitors to North America from the Scottish Patrick Shirreff, to Mrs. Trollope, to Dickens himself have almost invariably regarded Canada in the light of what it is not -- a kind of inverse United States, a land to compare favorably or unfavorably, depending on the traveller’s own prejudices, with its southern neighbor -- and with the Mother Country.

For instance, take the following description of crossing the Niagara River from Mrs. Trollope’s 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans, a book which Dickens read in preparation for his North American trip. Mrs. Trollope writes: “I was delighted to see British oaks, and British roofs, and British boys and girls. These latter, as if to impress us that they were not citizens [she means, presumably, citizens of the US], made bows and courtesies as we passed, and this little touch of long unknown civility produced great effect.”(379) Mrs. Trollope also suggests that Canada be used to relieve the pressure of overpopulation and poverty in Britain, because of its expanse, its fertility, and its fine climate (292). Mrs. Trollope obviously had no notion of a Canadian winter.

At the time of Dickens’s visit in late April and May of 1842, Canada had been under British rule for some eighty years. It had successfully repulsed two attempted invasions from the south, the first right after the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and the second in 1812. The War of 1812 saw the British commander, Sir Isaac Brock, killed during the battle at Queenston Heights. Dickens alludes to Brock’s ruined monument in American Notes, and urges its repair because, he writes, “it is beneath the dignity of England to allow a memorial raised in honour of one of her defenders to remain in this condition, on the very spot where he died” (233). The comment is indicative of Dickens’s confident sense of himself as an Englishman traveling on English soil among English compatriots.

But the realities of the time were more complicated. Canada was a country that had experienced much political unrest in the years just prior to Dickens’s arrival, with two significant rebellions against British rule taking place in the years 1837-8. The first of these began in November 1837 in Quebec, then called Lower Canada, and was fueled by French Canadian resentment against British rule. This so-called Patriots’ Revolt drew British forces and Canadian militia to Lower Canada, leaving Upper Canada (today’s Ontario) undefended. This led to the second rebellion, when William Lyon Mackenzie, an advocate of increased Canadian self-rule, led a few hundred disaffected citizens on a march to seize arms from Toronto’s city hall. British loyalists fought off the marchers north of Toronto. Both rebellions were quickly and rather brutally suppressed, although their leaders managed to escape to the United States.

The 1837 rebellions, occurring in the year that Victoria came to the throne, represented an embarrassment to the British government, which dispatched the liberal-minded Lord Durham to try to mend matters. Lord Durham himself did not last long as governor, but his Durham Report led in 1840 to the Act of Union, erasing the divisions between Upper and Lower Canada and creating an entity called The United Provinces of Canada, which merged French and English into one legislative body, with English as the language of government and legislature.

Thus Canada, at the time of Dickens’s 1842 visit, while admittedly British in government, was quite restlessly so. It was a country divided between French and English and was already far more aware of, attracted to, and repelled by the power and influence of the United States than British visitors of the time seemed to realize. Nevertheless, the early 1840s was a time of economic prosperity in Canada, and Dickens’s approving description of the “bustle” of Canadian cities attests to this fact.

If Canada represented a blank slate to the visitor, Dickens’s inscription on that slate betrays an eagerness to be pleased by the Britishness of British North America and to compensate thereby for the disappointment of the American part of his tour. The result of this eagerness is a kind of schizophrenic back-and-forth in both his letters and in American Notes, as every now and then Dickens’s enthusiasm for the good manners, probity, and generosity of the North American English is given a check by a less pleasant reality.

For instance, Dickens begins Chapter 15, the Canadian chapter of American Notes, with the following disclaimer: “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” (AN 231). But no sooner is this high-minded resolve expressed than it is forgotten when Dickens describes how the exalted feelings of mystical awe that he experienced on first seeing Niagara Falls were profaned by the comments he found in the visitors’ book in the guide’s cottage at Table Rock. These comments he describes as “the vilest and filthiest ribaldry that ever human hogs delighted in.” Then he goes on:
It is humiliating enough to know that there are among men brutes so obscene and worthless, that they can delight in laying their miserable profanations upon the very steps of Nature’s greatest altar. But that these should be hoarded up for the delight of their fellow-swine is a disgrace to the English language. . .(though I hope few of these entries have been made by Englishmen), and a reproach to the English side on which they are preserved. (AN 232)
The extent of Dickens’s outrage can be gauged from the fact that his anger is expressed in even stronger terms in a letter he wrote to Charles Sumner on May 16, 1842, which, interestingly enough, omits the nationalistic references:
My wrath is kindled, past all human powers of extinction, by the disgusting entries in the books which are kept at the Guide’s house; and which, made in such a spot, and preserved afterwards, are a disgrace and degradation to our nature. If I were a despot, I would force these Hogs to live for the rest of their lives on all Fours, and to wallow in filth expressly provided for them by Scavengers who should be maintained at the Public expence [sic]. Their drink should be the stagnant ditch, and their food the rankest garbage; and every morning they should each receive as many stripes as there are letters in their detestable obscenities. (Letters 239)
The intensity of Dickens’s reaction here is certainly puzzling. An explanation for it has been provided by Peter Ackroyd, who suggests that Dickens had been moved by the spectacle of the Falls to think of Mary Hogarth. “There can be very little doubt,” Ackroyd writes, “that Dickens did indeed believe her to be present as a spirit, looking down on him from some place of eternal repose. (Ackroyd 366). The irreverence of the comments in the visitors’ book, “on the very altar of Nature,” as Dickens puts it in American Notes, would then have struck him as a profanation. But what is especially interesting about this passage is Dickens’s assumption, which occurs only in American Notes, that ribaldry of this kind is somehow not English. Following immediately on the heels of Dickens’s high-minded refusal to compare the United States to Canada, this does not bode well for his scrupulous neutrality, especially since the implication of the passage in American Notes is that only Americans are capable of such outrages to decency and to the English language. Dickens surely knew better. The passage is also notable for Dickens’s assumption, embodied in the phrase “the English side,” that Canada is a substitute England, a home for the Englishman away from home, a land whose perfections may be singled out as a way of a) paying back the Americans and, b) praising the English without actually praising England.

A similar example of Dickens’s double vision of Canada occurs in a letter to John Forster, dated May 12th. There Dickens gives an account of his two-day stay in Toronto, as follows:
We have been to Toronto and Kingston; experiencing attentions at each which I have difficulty in describing. The wild and rabid toryism of Toronto, is, I speak seriously, appalling. English kindness is very different from American. People send their horses and carriages for your use, but they don’t exact as payment the right of being always under your nose. (Letters 236)
Notice the quick successions of praise, blame and praise here. Dickens’s complaint about the rabid toryism of Toronto is sandwiched between two encomiums to the attentions and kindnesses of the English population, and how different this behavior is from the less disinterested generosity of the Americans. The remark about the rabid toryism of Toronto comes and goes without further explanation or comment, as if the documentary side of Dickens felt obliged to notice what his ideological side would like to ignore.

The Canadian press was not unaware of the comparison to be drawn between Canada and the United States as regards hospitality to visiting celebrities and gloated over its own greater tact. The Kingston Chronicle of May 11, 1842 claimed that in Canada, Dickens “had not been hunted down like a lion”; and The Montreal Transcript of May 14th commented: “Mr. Dickens must be heartily tired of the endless calls and fetes with which he was greeted by our neighbours, and must be anxious for that repose which, however anxious our citizens may be to see him, will most probably be afforded him.”(Letters 236, N4).

As for Kingston, the other city mentioned in Dickens’s letter to Forster, it was then the capital of the United Provinces of Canada, and site -- to this day -- of one of the largest and most infamous Canadian prisons. Dickens disliked the town but approved of its penitentiary, which he found “well and wisely governed” (AN, 237), again in contrast to his feelings about the prisons he saw in the United States. Still it is hard to escape the suspicion that at least part of the reason for Dickens’s approbation of the Kingston prison had to do with the presence, among the inmates, of “a beautiful girl of twenty” who had “acted as the bearer of secret dispatches for the self-styled Patriots on Navy Island during the Canadian Insurrection: sometimes dressing as a girl, and carrying them in her stays; sometimes attiring herself as a boy, and secreting them in the lining of her hat. In the latter character she always rode as a boy would, which was nothing to her, for she could govern any horse a man could ride. . .”(AN 237).

The reference is to the aftermath of the 1837 rebellion, when William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the Upper Canada insurrection against British rule, with the backing of American supporters, seized a small uninhabited island in the Niagara River and declared it to be independent from British rule. The British reacted to this provocation by setting fire to an American ship, which in turn led the Americans to beef up security along their borders. But the Americans also cut off illegal aid to the Canadian patriots, who were then forced to give up Navy Island in January 1838.

Like the toryism of Toronto, which had arisen in response to the 1837-8 rebellion against British rule, the imprisoned girl at Kingston was an unpleasant reminder that the Englishness of English Canada was by no means a universally acceptable fact. Some of the natives, at least, were restless. But Dickens elides the political significance of the girl’s actions, mentioning it only in passing. What is not elided, however, is the mixture of admiration and horror that always marked Dickens’s ambivalent attitude towards political unrest and that appears with such double-minded complexity in his accounts of the Gordon riots in Barnaby Rudge and of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. Furthermore, the bloodthirsty female revolutionaries in A Tale of Two Cities are already foreshadowed in the description of this pretty girl who could drive “four-in-hand with the best whip in those parts” and had “a lurking devil in her bright eye, which looked out pretty sharply from between her prison bars” (AN 237-8).

The Dickenses left Kingston for Montreal by steamboat on May 10th. This proved to be the most difficult part of their Canadian journey, since the boat trip had to be interrupted twice and travel recommenced by stagecoach in order to bypass the rapids in the St. Lawrence River. They reached Montreal on May 11th and stayed until May 30th at Rasco’s Hotel, which still stands, and which Dickens described as the “worst in the whole wide World” (Letters 242). At the time of Dickens’s arrival, Montreal was the most populous city in British North America, and would soon to be made the capital in 1844. Its port was booming, and it already gave promise of becoming the economic engine for the rest of Canada, a position it maintained until the middle of the twentieth century.

Dickens’s experiences in Montreal certainly did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for Canada. Canadian newspapers and especially The Montreal Gazette supported him in his stand on the copyright issue. He and Catherine made a side-trip to Quebec City and were suitably impressed by its fortresslike setting on top a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Perhaps most significant for Dickens personally were the two nights of dramatic productions that he stage managed and acted in at the request of the Earl of Mulgrave, the first time since his “authorship days” (Letters 237) that Dickens had taken part in anything to do with the theatre. There was, in fact, nothing unusual in the Earl of Mulgrave’s request, since the tradition of soldiers staging theatrical performances in Montreal had been established with the first British garrison in the city. Dickens threw himself into these productions with all his heart and reported modestly to Forster that, “I really do believe that I was very funny” (Letters 246).

And yet taken all-in-all Dickens’s praise for Canada, as it appears in his letters and in American Notes, falls a little flat, as if in the end the pleasure he took in Canada could not quite make up for the deficiencies of the United States. It is notable, for instance, that at the end of David Copperfield, when Dickens needs a land of promise to which to send his emigrants, he picks Australia not Canada, despite the fact that he had personally encountered “vast numbers” of emigrants, “nearly all English,” disembarking on the quays of Montreal. Perhaps, Canada was tainted for him as a land of utopian possibility by its proximity to the United States, as well as by the fact that he had actually been there and so found his imagination fettered by his knowledge of the reality. Certainly one suspects that for all his insistence on the essential Englishness of Canada, Dickens knew that the truth was far more complex. Or perhaps he meant seriously the rhetorical question he asked Frederick Granville in a letter written a few months after his return to England: “Of course,” Dickens wrote, “there is no place like old England. There never was, and never will be. What has a rational man to do with Canada?”(Letters 354).


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper/Collins, 1990
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. New York: Fawcett, 1961.
----------. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 3. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans. Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith, 1974.