It’s kind of fitting, I think, that I finish The Uncommercial Traveler while traveling. I’m ensconced in a lovely cottage on BC’s Sunshine Coast (which, at the moment, isn’t living up to its sunny name). I’ve accepted the fact that this year-long project will take slightly more than a year – if you can swan off and die leaving Edwin Drood unfinished, then I can take a few extra days to finish reading it.
But speaking of death, and getting back to your uncommercial travels, one of the most striking images in the entire collection has to be your experience in the Paris morgue. You’ve written about visits to the morgue before, and at first I thought maybe you were a little bit odd for feeding such a grim fascination. But judging from the party-like atmosphere accompanying some poor old dude who got his head bashed in with a falling stone, it seems more like any other family entertainment. What struck me the most was your description of the drowning victims in said morgue, ignored by everyone but two girls, one of whom was pointing out the bodies to her frickin’ doll. “Honey, where shall we take the kids today? The park? The zoo?” “Oh, no, dearest, I hear there are two fresh drowning victims in the morgue. Do let’s go and see those.” “Why, of course, sweet one, why didn’t you say so!” So I apologize for thinking you were uniquely odd. Maybe morgue outings were the Victorian equivalent of watching CSI…
What I really like about the majority of your uncommercial travels is how often you simply explore your own city, taking your readers into odd nooks and crannies, and revealing to them the many lives and conditions of its inhabitants, which seem through your eyes to be positively exotic. I loved that little sabbatical you took during London’s off season, where the lives of servants and the other people who tend to get lost in the fashionable bustle come to life when the streets are quiet and they are revealed <gasp> to have lives of their own!
And I don’t know how much was because of your celebrity, and how much because of your genuine sympathy and curiosity, but people seem more than willing to welcome you into their worlds and show you around their factories, canteens, workhouses, hospitals or hovels. I don’t know about your contemporary readers, my friend, but I found it absolutely fascinating to see these portraits of the people and things that were so often marginalized. Your novels give us wonderfully individual experiences and drama, but these non-fiction explorations very much help to put those characters into a larger context.
And now, my friend, my morning coffee is ready, and I must get ready to listen to some authors and try to reconcile my overly optimistic wardrobe with an uncharacteristically rainy day. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll be reading Edwin Drood. :-/
P.S. Wifi is sketchy out here. Sorry there aren’t more photos or links.