To complement our CD sale, I wanted to write about how I saw the “world” from 1982 to 2012 when I led twenty-eight different learning travel excursions to England. A few of you reading these words went along with me so you know that any trip to England is a complete Wondrous World in itself. For those of you who didn’t travel with me, let me take you along now and show you how we behaved.
All of us were always wearing our bright red tags with "Dickens Fellowship" emblazoned beneath our names. The badges originally had read "Dickens Disciples," but you would be amazed at how many passengers on the plane flight over or returning from London would see that tag and then assume that we were a new peculiar religious sect or cult. I remember that on our first trip in 1982, a passenger saw the Dickens Disciple tag and asked one of our participants: "And what denomination is that?" I was most impressed when our club member replied without a moment's hesitation: "Charles."
I assume that other literary clubs conduct tours, but I'm convinced that no club better honors the spirit of its author by travel than we Dickensians do. Although the world today knows Charles Dickens primarily as a social reformer and sentimentalist, his first novel — The Pickwick Papers — established the twenty-four-year-old author as a writer who loved the idea of travel.
The extremely loose and episodic plot of The Pickwick Papers depended upon little more than the erratic itinerary of the Pickwickians' journeys throughout England. Dickens convinces us that Mr. Pickwick is the ideal traveller because his innocence and curiosity allow him to be taken in by all sorts of fascinating rogues and charlatans on the roads and in the inns which he visits. What Pickwick loses in dignity he gains in delightful misadventure. Since Pickwick is such a naive hero, prone to countless practical jokes, Dickens makes his novel a sort of "Gullible's Travels.” Pickwick's trips are literal ones as he trips, stumbles, and falls prey to all sorts of embarrassments.
On my nearly thirty literary excursions, I was able to identify with Mr. Pickwick's minor humiliations. Like him, I've been tripped up when I least expected it.
For example, one late afternoon on our free day a participant told me her roommate, Karen Johnson, had been trying to get on a London bus earlier when it abruptly pulled away, causing her to fall and break her arm, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I was very worried. I immediately called the hospital — we were due at Haymarket Theatre to see a revival of “The King And I,” and I wanted to reach her before we left.
I called the floor ward nurse, explained who I was, and asked to speak to Mrs. Johnson. “I’m sorry, sir, she’s gone to the theatre” she answered in a rather clipped tone. I was elated. “Oh, she’s still going to be able to join us at ‘The King and I!” There was a pause on the other end. “The O-P E-R-A-T-I-N-G THEATRE” she hissed, enunciating the key word so slowly that even this idiot Ugly-American could follow -- and be utterly abashed.
And then there was the time I was lecturing to the group at a great country estate that had served as the original Bleak House in the famous Dickens novel of this title. After delivering what I thought was my finest talk of the tour, I decided to ask if anyone in the group had any particular question, comment, or observation. I noticed that my mother, who often accompanied us on our trips, quickly raised her hand (perhaps one or two of you remember her on our trips?).
"Mrs. Engel,” I pleasantly inquired, "Is there something you wish to share?"
"Yes, Dr. Engel," she cheerfully replied (it was "Dr. Engel' when we were in public; it was “Sweetheart" in more private locations). "I believe that your shirt tail is hanging out.” And so it was. Thanks, mom...
Perhaps Dickens opened his writing career with a novel about travel because he was actually interested in developing a much broader theme. He put those Pickwickians on the road in order to give them shared adventures. In Chapter One, these characters are strangers to Dickens' readers and a bit like strangers to each other as well. But very soon, because they are travelling companions, they become comrades. His real theme in Pickwick Papers is not travel but fellowship.
And now in these dreary days of Covid, all of us who used to revel in world travel must cope with the loss of the fellowship we experienced so often when our fellow travelers in foreign countries went from being strangers to comrades in a global adventure. Who of us didn’t form a few lasting friendships from those we met on such exhilarating vacations?
Such is 2020 for us but surely looking a bit ahead to 2022, travel joys will return. Thinking of 2020 and 2022 in that order, I shall conclude with Dickens’ most famous opening sentence -- but this time in reverse: “It is the worst of times, it will be the best of times." Here's hoping!