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Touring Richmond With Charles Dickens

Travel to London and you might muse to yourself that at any corner—around Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, or Covent Garden—your footsteps and the footsteps of author Charles Dickens could overlap. But don’t travel to London, spend the weekend walking around Richmond, and the same might be true. On March 16, 1842 Charles Dickens took a coach from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, the southernmost point in his six-month tour of the United States. Dickens had just turned 30 and was already internationally renowned. He planned to follow-up his novel Barnaby Rudge with an American travelogue, published later that year as American Notes for General Circulation.
After arriving in Boston Dickens travelled to New York and from New York to Philadelphia, where he had his first brush with Richmond via the city’s adopted-son, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, then 33 and an enormous admirer of Dickens’ work, sought him out to discuss American poetry as well’s as Poe’s publishing prospects in England. They had two long discussions at Dickens’ hotel, with Dickens promising to raise Poe’s profile in England once he returned. (Dickens eventually tried to do just that, but an anonymous review appeared in England in 1844 with lukewarm remarks about Poe, and when Poe assumed the author to be Dickens their relationship soured.)
Originally Dickens had intended to travel as far south as Charleston, but considering the increasing heat decided Richmond would be his first and last stop in the South, his one chance to view the system he was equally curious about and horrified by, slavery. On the ride from Washington Dickens observed, “In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding…there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system.” A map of Dickens’ journey through the district between Washington and Richmond was included in the Richmond History Center’s RVA 50 exhibit, being one of 50 objects exemplifying the history of Richmond.
Dickens arrived at the Exchange hotel on 14th and Franklin, where a large dinner was held in his honor. Over the next two days Dickens visited every part of Richmond that interested him, and some parts that didn’t. He spent time at a tobacco factory and crossed the James to visit a plantation. He was fascinated by the site of the battle of Bloody Run (a marker for which now stands at 32ndand Broad) but slightly bored by the sessions taking place at the state capitol, where “orators were drowsily holding forth to the hot noon day.”
Early on Sunday Dickens left Richmond with a decidedly mixed opinion of the city. The natural beauty of the landscape impressed him, but it was a landscape stained by slavery. “The same decay and gloom that overhang the way by which it is approached, hover above the town of Richmond,” he wrote. “There are pretty villas and cheerful houses in its streets, and Nature smiles upon the country round; but jostling its handsome residences, like slavery itself going hand in hand with many lofty virtues, are deplorable tenements, fences unrepaired, walls crumbling into ruinous heaps.”

It is tempting to imagine what Dickens would make of Richmond now. The best way of bringing Dickens back to Richmond is perhaps to walk across town with one of his books, maybe even in his footsteps, stretching out in Chimborazo Park or Hollywood Cemetery, and, by reading the book, bringing it to life. The public library serves as the best departure point for a Dickens-accompanied tour of Richmond. His novels and the American Notes are in the first floor Fiction section of the Main library, which also holds many Dickens adaptations on DVD and audiobooks on CD. For anyone interested specifically in Dickens’ visit to Richmond look for Virginius Dabney’s Richmond: The Story of a City, the early 20th century book Charles Dickens in America, and the library’s collection of Dickens biographies.