Literature: Dickens at sea

Andrew Lang, in an introduction to Charles Dickens’s American Notes, says that “as early as July, 1839, Dickens was thinking of a visit to the United States.

Dickens at Sea 

Dickens’s commercial success was by no means on a level with his fame and popularity.

He was caressing the idea of a weekly paper of his own, which took shape in Master Humphrey’s Clock, and he ‘was ready to contract to go’ either to Ireland or America, ‘and to write from thence a series of papers illustrative of the places and people I see, introducing local tales, traditions, and legends, something after the plan of Washington Irving’s Alhambra.
So Charles Dickens booked one of the “utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box-like staterooms on a trans-Atlantic steamer and made his way to Boston.

From A Stray Leaf from the Correspondence of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, by William Loring Andrews:

Of all the months in the calendar, he chose one of the worst for a maiden venture upon the sea,

and on the fourth day of January, 1842, Charles Dickens, his wife, and her maid Anne, who in the bliss of her ignorance was “amazingly cheerful and light of heart upon it,” left Liverpool in the paddle-box steamship Britannia. They called at Halifax (as was then the practice of the British and North American Packet Line [to deliver mail]), and arrived safely at Boston on the twenty-first of the same month, overjoyed to find themselves once more on solid ground after seventeen days of tossing to and fro in midwinter upon the boisterous North Atlantic. Head winds, hurricanes, and a sea “horribly disturbed” had been their trying experience during the entire passage.
Mr. Dickens proved an indifferent sailor, and Neptune, totally regardless even of the claims of genius when it trespasses upon his domain, favored him not a whit. For the first week of the voyage he was unable “to get to work at the dinner table,” so that for that interval his pen for once lay idle, and there was no “chiel amang” the ship’s company taking notes with the deliberate intention of putting them into print at the very first favorable opportunity. In a letter indited as the good ship which had borne them bravely across the storm-swept sea was nearing their desired haven, Dickens indulges in a reminiscence of his first salt-water experience, which has the true Pickwickian flavor. 
From “The Passage Out,” in Dickens’s American Notes:

It was not exactly comfortable below.

It was decidedly close; and it was impossible to be unconscious of the presence of that extraordinary compound of strange smells which is to be found nowhere but on board ship, and which is such a subtle perfume that it seems to enter at every pore of the skin, and whisper of the hold. Two passengers’ wives (one of them my own) lay already in silent agonies on the sofa; and one lady’s maid (my lady’s) was a mere bundle on the floor, execrating her destiny, and pounding her curl-papers among the stray boxes. Everything sloped the wrong way: which in itself was an aggravation scarcely to be borne. I had left the door open, a moment before, in the bosom of a gentle declivity, and, when I turned to shut it, it was on the summit of a lofty eminence. Now every plank and timber creaked, as if the ship were made of wicker-work; and now crackled, like an enormous fire of the driest possible twigs...

It is the third morning. 

I am awakened out of my sleep by a dismal shriek from my wife, 

who demands to know whether there’s any danger. I rouse myself, and look out of bed. The water-jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat, except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal-barges. Suddenly I see them spring into the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast upon the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head...

I say nothing of what may be called the domestic noises of the ship: such as the breaking of glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols, overhead, of loose casks and truant dozens of bottled porter, and the very remarkable and far from exhilarating sounds raised in their various state-rooms by the seventy passengers who were too ill to get up to breakfast. I say nothing of them: for although I lay listening to this concert for three or four days, I don’t think I heard it for more than a quarter of a minute, at the expiration of which term, I lay down again, excessively sea-sick...

The labouring of the ship in the troubled sea on this night I shall never forget. 

Will it ever be worse than this?

was a question I had often heard asked, when everything was sliding and bumping about, and when it certainly did seem difficult to comprehend the possibility of anything afloat being more disturbed, without toppling over and going down. But what the agitation of a steam-vessel is, on a bad winter’s night in the wild Atlantic, it is impossible for the most vivid imagination to conceive. To say that she is flung down on her side in the waves, with her masts dipping into them, and that, springing up again, she rolls over on the other side, until a heavy sea strikes her with the noise of a hundred great guns, and hurls her back—that she stops, and staggers, and shivers, as though stunned, and then, with a violent throbbing at her heart, darts onward like a monster goaded into madness, to be beaten down, and battered, and crushed, and leaped on by the angry sea—that thunder, lightning, hail, and rain, and wind, are all in fierce contention for the mastery—that every plank has its groan, every nail its shriek, and every drop of water in the great ocean its howling voice—is nothing. To say that all is grand, and all appalling and horrible in the last degree, is nothing. Words cannot express it. Thoughts cannot convey it. Only a dream can call it up again, in all its fury, rage and passion.

And yet, in the very midst of these terrors

I was placed in a situation so exquisitely ridiculous

that even then I had as strong a sense of its absurdity as I have now and could no more help laughing than I can at any other comical incident, happening under circumstances the most favourable to its enjoyment. About midnight we shipped a sea, which forced its way through the skylights, burst open the doors above, and came raging and roaring down into the ladies’ cabin, to the unspeakable consternation of my wife and a little Scotch lady—who, by the way, had previously sent a message to the captain by the stewardess, requesting him, with her compliments, to have a steel conductor immediately attached to the top of every mast, and to the chimney, in order that the ship might not be struck by lightning. They, and the handmaid before mentioned, being in such ecstasies of fear that I scarcely knew what to do with them, I naturally bethought myself of some restorative or comfortable cordial; and nothing better occurring to me, at the moment, than hot brandy-and-water, I procured a tumbler-full without delay. It being impossible to stand or sit without holding on, they were all heaped together in one corner of a long sofa—a fixture extending entirely across the cabin—where they clung to each other in momentary expectation of being drowned. When I approached this place with my specific, and was about to administer it, with many consolatory expressions, to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to see them all roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their all rolling back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down this sofa, for at least a quarter of an hour, without reaching them once; and by the time I did catch them, the brandy-and-water was diminished, by constant spilling, to a tea-spoonful...

In the gale of last night the life-boat had been crushed by one blow of the sea like a walnut-shell;

and there it hung dangling in the air: a mere faggot of crazy boards. The planking of the paddle-boxes had been torn sheer away. The wheels were exposed and bare; and they whirled and dashed their spray about the decks at random. Chimney, white with crusted salt; topmasts struck; stormsails set; rigging all knotted, tangled, wet, and drooping : a gloomier picture it would be hard to look upon...

Dickens survived those seventeen stormy days at sea.
We came to a wharf, paved with uplifted faces; got alongside, and were made fast, after some shouting and straining of cables; darted, a score of us, along the gangway, almost as soon as it was thrust out to meet us, and before it had reached the ship—and leaped upon the firm glad earth again!
For more Dickens trivia, access David Perdue's wonderful Dickens web site.
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