Charles Dickens visit to Quebec

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Sketch of Charles Dickens while on a tour of Canada and The United States in 1842.

Quebec City has long been a source of inspiration for delightful descriptive pieces by the world's leading writers. When any of these visited the city they never could resist reaching for their pens. The great English novelist Charles Dickens was no exception. Arriving on May 27, 1842, from Montreal aboard the steamboat Lady Colborne, he too succumbed to the charms of Quebec and left us these impressions.

"The steamboats to Quebec perform the journey in the night; that is to say they leave Montreal at six in the evening and arrive at Quebec at six next morning.

"We made this excursion during our stay in Montreal (which exceeded a fortnight) and were charmed by its interest and beauty. The impression made upon the visitor by this Gibraltar of America: its giddy heights; its citadel suspended as it were in the air; its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways; and the splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn: is at once unique and lasting.

"It is a place not to be forgotten or mixed up in the mind with other places or altered for a moment in the crowd of scenes a traveller can recall. Apart from the realities of this most picturesque city, there are associations clustering about it which would make a desert rich in interest. The dangerous precipice along whose rocky front Wolfe and his brave companions climbed to glory; the Plains of Abraham where he received his mortal wound; the fortress so chivalrously defended by Montcalm; and his soldier's grave, dug for him while yet alive by the bursting of a shell; are not the least among them among the gallant incidents of history. That is a noble Monument too and worthy of two great nations which perpetuates the memory of both brave generals and on which their names are jointly written."

"The city is rich in public institutions and in Catholic churches and charities, but it is mainly in the prospect from the site of the Old Government House and from the Citadel that its surpassing beauty lies. The exquisite expanse of country, rich in field and forest, mountain-height and water, which lies stretched out before the view, with miles of Canadian villages glancing in long white streaks, like veins along the landscape; the motley crowd of gables, roofs, and chimney tops in the old hilly town immediately at hand; the beautiful St. Lawrence sparkling and flashing in the sunlight; and the tiny ships below the rock from which you gaze, whose distant rigging looks like spiders' webs against the light, while casks and barrels on their decks dwindle into toys, and busy mariners become so many puppets; all this framed by a sunken window in the fortress and looked at from the shadowed room within, forms one of the brightest and most enchanting pictures that the eye can rest upon."

It has been some hundred years since Charles Dickens noted down these observations and though there have been many changes in the appearance of Quebec since, there is still much left to support the English writer's description of the city. The view from the heights remains, in fact with the addition of a new board-walk and other promenade facilities, the view is even more enjoyable today. Than it was in the time of Dickens and many of the buildings which attracted the admiration of David Copperfield's creator continue to play a leading role in present day Quebec.

Culled from the Web: Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 - 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic who is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period and the creator of some of the world's most memorable fictional characters. During his lifetime Dickens's works enjoyed unprecedented popularity and fame, and by the twentieth century his literary genius was fully recognized by critics and scholars. His novels and short stories continue to enjoy an enduring popularity among the general reading public.

Born in Portsmouth, England, Dickens left school to work in a factory after his father was thrown into debtors' prison. Though he had little formal education, his early impoverishment drove him to succeed. He edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms.

His 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, is one of the most influential works ever written, and it remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre.
(This piece first appeared in the Chronicle-Telegraph in August 1962. An article about the visit of Charles Dickens and his wife to Quebec City also appeared in the May 28, 1842 issue of The Quebec Mercury, 170 years ago.)