I was a history major in college. The past has always fascinated me. Especially the Middle Ages. I had an exciting history teacher in high school, Paul Tedesco, who stimulated an interest on my part in American history. And, it was my very good fortune to have had a great medieval history professor in college, Norman F. Cantor.
I never actually never learned that much history, from the point of view of factual knowledge. What I most liked, especially in the college courses I took, was great historical writing from the aesthetic point of view.
Be that as it may, I would like in this post to “expound” briefly on something that has occurred to me from time to time.
History is all well and good — and necessary (I don’t mean to show ignorance by detracting from it) — but if you want to know what the past was really like, fiction is the best, without question. It can tell you better than a nonfiction monograph, better than a work of scholarship, about the past, not only make you feel like you are there, but feel what it was like, experience it vicariously, and learn all sorts of little things about how those times were different, from how people behaved to their households and customs. There is no comparable way to experience and know the past; there’s no comparison.
To give an example, I have been reading Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837).
In Chapter V, Mr. Pickwick and his companions hire a post-chaise to take them from the town of Rochester to Dingley Dell manor, a distance of fifteen miles. “It was a curious little green box on four wheels,” Dickens writes, “with a low place like a wine-bin for two behind, and an elevated perch out front, drawn by an immense brown horse.”
That’s how gentlemen traveled in those days.
There is not enough room in the post-chaise for the entire party of four, so one of them, Mr. Winkle, has to travel on horseback. Mr. Winkle experiences difficulty mounting his horse, and it runs away. The other horse runs off with the chaise, which eventually crashes into a wooden bridge. The party end up walking the distance, leading by its harness “a dreadful horse that [the party of travelers] can’t be got rid of.”
The scene, as told by Dickens, is hilarious. And it illustrates what traveling was like in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century. You had to hire a coach and driver or rent your own horse to ride. (And people as a matter of course could ride on horseback in those days.) But, hiring the horse was often a problem. Yes, coaches would ply the streets of London, but, depending on your transportation requirements and where you were, you might have to find a hosteler. Then, travelling by horseback or coach was much, much slower than traveling nowadays. In Chapter IX, Mr. Pickwick hires a coach to pursue the fleeing scoundrel Alfred Jingle:
‘Pretty situation,’ thought Mr. Pickwick, when he had had a moment’s time for reflection. … Pickwick Club. Damp chaise — strange horses — fifteen miles an hour — and twelve o’clock at night!’
Also, in Chapter V, there is a description of the interior of a roadside public-house in a small town:
a large apartment, with a red brick floor and a capacious chimney; the ceiling garnished with ham, sides of bacon, and ropes of onions. The walls were decorated with several hunting-whips, two or three bridles, a saddle and an old rusty blunderbuss….
And, “an old eight-day clock.” This refers to a clock that could run for eight days without having to be wound. It feels so nineteenth century and unlike any lodging one would stay at in one’s travels nowadays. Certainly not a Ramada or Holiday Inn!
Reading a novel can often, in some respects, be like traveling back in time. For instance:
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
life in seventeenth-century London
Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
family life in an early nineteenth century English village
Balzac, Père Goriot (1835)
early 19th century Paris
Walt Whitman’s newly discovered novel Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (1852)
early 19th century Manhattan
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878)
upper class life in prerevolutionary Russia
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)
boyhood in an 18th century English seacoast town
George Gissing, New Grub Street (1891)
London near the end of the Victorian era
Arthur Henry’s little known novel The Unwritten Law (1905; Henry was a friend of Theodore Dreiser’s who influenced and encouraged the latter in his early writing career)
turn of the century Washington Square
Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)
life in the Lower East Side for Jewish immigrants
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
the Dust Bowl during the Depression
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
Manhattan in the post-World War II period
Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah (1956)
All wonderful books, all of which, I am proud to say, I have read.
— Roger W. Smith