Since the end of April, I’ve been houseless and thus not as productive as I was hoping I would be this summer. I won’t bore you with all of the details or complaints, but suffice it to say that my seemingly perpetual state of transition over the last few months (which has now come to a halt, thankfully, in Calgary) has been both incredibly annoying and somewhat insightful, at least regarding what I want to blog about today.

Being houseless and undecided about where to live has a strange effect on one’s sense of self worth, especially when motivating factors in the decision involve two people, potential career prospects, and somewhat contrasting preferences about weather. My partner and I recently drove from Calgary to Vancouver and back (12 hours each way) in a rented cargo van. All of our worldly possessions (which don’t amount to much at all) were resting in a storage locker in my home town and a basement in my partner’s hometown. We’d been on the move for quite some time — a few weeks in England, a month or so staying with family (both sides), in our own bedroom, on couches, air mattresses, chesterfield cushions converted to mattresses, various beds and breakfasts, hotels, taking trains, planes, and automobiles back and forth, never seeming to rest in one place for longer than a day or two. We also managed to look for, and find, a new place to live in Calgary after deciding against Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto (and we don’t even expect to be in Calgary for much longer than a year).

Last week, the evening before our move to Calgary and the impending 2000 km drive to Vancouver and back, I had an extraordinarily Dickensian dream. I don’t actually remember the details, but I know that I woke up in the middle of the night struggling frantically with a too-heavy piece of imaginary luggage. I woke up frustrated, exhausted, and absolutely furious about having to move yet another piece of luggage from one place to another.

Since that dream, I’ve had Dickens on the brain, and particularly a few key lines from a piece called “An Unsettled Neighbourhood” (Household Words 1854), which documents the changes in Camden Town after its first introduction to the railway. Overcome by numerous attempts to profit from railway business, the neighbourhood undergoes what Dickens calls a “physical change” in both design and moral character after the railway’s emergence. Dickens’s ultimate protest speaks to my own frustrations over the last few months:

“I have seen various causes of demoralisation learnedly pointed out in reports and speeches, and charges to grand juries; but, the most demoralising thing I know, is Luggage. I have come to the conclusion that the moment Luggage begins to be always shooting about a neighbourhood, that neighbourhood goes out of its mind. Everybody wants to be off somewhere. Everybody does everything in a hurry.”

I know this feeling, intimately and somatically.  All of my possessions (and especially my books) have sent my back and arms into fits. My choice of career has been challenged by things. I feel out of mind and want to be somewhere else, anywhere, as long as it’s settled. And not only have my things taken their revenge on my body for being stored away for months, but Luggage has also, obviously, permeated my dreams. As Dickens suggests, there is no going back. Once set in motion, luggage circulates perpetually, carving a moral cavern into each and everyone of us. “We dream,” Dickens writes, “in this said neighbourhood, of carpet-bags and packages. How can we help it?”

We dream of packages. I dream of luggage. I’m exhausted, physically, emotionally, and apparently unconsciously. We’re close to being completely set up in our new place in Calgary, but Dickens’s warnings about the moral dangers of unrestricted mobility (for those who can afford it) still haunt my thoughts. Railways have a nostalgic value today, as we’re all so used to air travel and automobiles, and their endless supply of both freedoms and annoyances (traffic jams, delayed flights, customs, etc). I enjoyed riding the rails in England this summer from station to station to station, so I’m certainly not immune to the nostalgia of the industrial era’s first great democratization of travel. At times, I even enjoy the freedom of the open road, or the puzzle of having to fit an endless number of mix-matched boxes into the back of a van or a storage unit.

Yet, throughout the past few months, I just haven’t been able to get Dickens’s ominous words out of my thoughts – we dream of carpet bags and packages – “we are, mind and body, an unsettled neighbourhood. We are demoralised by the contemplation of luggage in perpetual motion.”

I’m exhausted, tired, and I hope all this moving about is worthwhile in the end. Is it? Please, please, readers, let me know if it is. I suspect we all dream of luggage in some form or another (latently or manifestly), especially in today’s global network. Are we all part of one big unsettled neighbourhood?

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10 thoughts on “I Dream of Luggage

  1. Daniel, I really enjoy how often you refer to Household Words in your posts! This one makes me think of nothing so much as ‘Somebody’s Luggage’, the Christmas number from 1862, in which a set of luggage left behind at a bed and breakfast for seven years begins to prey on the mind of the establishment’s head waiter … sounds like another manifestation of the phenomenon you’re discussing.

  2. I love Dickens’s pieces for Household Words and All the Year Round! I find them much more provocative than his novels, with the exception of Bleak House. I’ve been thinking about a course on Dickens that would have students read Bleak House alongside Dickens’s HW pieces of the same period. I think there are some very intriguing points of similarity and difference between his novels and journalism, references to which Jen has just discussed in her most recent post.

    Thanks for the reminder about “Somebody’s Luggage.” I know of it, but haven’t read it yet. I will now!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Daniel. I too have been nomadic with my partner for some time. We left our apartment in late June and have been staying with family and friends until our move to England in September. I love your link between contemporary luggage anxieties and those brought upon by early railway travel. Dickens’s comment, “We are demoralised by the contemplation of luggage in perpetual motion,” seems particularly apt after my experiences in four airports in the last two days.

    Can I ask how you’ve been reading Household Words? That is, do you read it online or have you accessed the original versions in university libraries?

  4. Much of the good stuff by Dickens is collected in David Pascoe’s Penguin edition of the Selected Journalism 1850-1870. It’s probably my most beat up penguin paperback. I’ve also found some good stuff through Google books, and there’s also Michael Slater’s four-volume annotated edition of Dickens’s journalism.

    The original volumes are always the best, but I’ve been too transitory to actually spend time at the library this summer.

    I think the nomad life is one that most of us young academics can relate to, especially if we haven’t yet found those coveted tenure-track jobs. At this point, a full 12 months in one place sounds like paradise.

  5. I can really relate to this as well! I thought it would be a great idea to front load all of my travelling this summer–the archives in Texas, BAVS-NAVSA and visiting friends and family in the UK, then more family in Toronto (re: Markham!), but I’m exhausted too! My brain is so slow that the only Victorian luggage thing I can think of is the baby-manuscript mix up in _The Importance of Being Ernest_. Certainly has to do with whole lives in a bag.

  6. Daniel, you may be interested in Malcolm Andrews’s take, in Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, on the ways that Dickens built rapport with his audience, in part, by constructing them as fellow travelers. Andrews writes, “fellowship, friendship, traveling companionship, these are for Dickens a key part of the experience of composition…” (24).

  7. I haven’t read Andrews’s book yet, Jen, but I’m a little suspicious about this claim. I’ll have to see how Andrews develops it, but my general sense is that Dickens’s railway pieces don’t really establish a rapport with his audience, unless we understand that rapport to be one of a kind of mutual alienation. Dickens’s pieces about traveling companions are lonely, and at times full of anxiety about the possibility of finding oneself stuck in a railway compartment with a criminal or otherwise bad traveling companion. At other times his pieces ruminate on the possibility of railway disasters and other threats to bodies of passengers. In fact, I don’t find much fellowship and friendship at all in his railway pieces. They reach out to readers through expressions of the thrills of railway traveling but they are always couched in a deeper, threatening disturbance that readers would have recognized as the emerging risks of industrial life.

    Still I’m very interested in Andrews’s study, so I’ll see if I can get a hold of it this week!

    1. Andrews doesn’t actually address the railway journalism; instead he focuses on the rhetoric Dickens uses to describe his audience. I think, though, that you may find that part of the book interesting precisely because of the compelling opposition you’re potentially identifying between Charles Dickens as travel writer and Charles Dickens as novelist/Reader.

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