‘Cities, like cats, reveal themselves at night’
Charlotte Runcie enjoys a captivating account of the writers, from Charles Dickens to John Clare, who have drawn solace and inspiration from nocturnal walks
We are told not to walk at night. Women, in particular, are often advised to travel after dark in groups. Our relationship with the night is riddled with fears, but for those of us who suffer from insomnia and love walking, there’s little that calms the soul like plodding towards breakfast in the slowly gathering light, or making a shivery journey on foot through silent, frosty streets. Walking at night can be thrilling or soothing, but always seductive. Nightwalking, by the critic and lecturer Matthew Beaumont, tracks the history of nightwalking in Britain and the colonies since Edward I introduced “nightwalker statutes” in 1285 “to abate the power of felons”. Town gates were closed between sunset and sunrise, and anyone who could not “give satisfaction for being abroad” after dark could be arrested by the new night-watchmen. The gentry were, naturally, largely excused. But the writer at the core of Beaumont’s book is Dickens, several centuries later, who pounded London’s streets at night whenever he happened on a tricky patch in one of his novels. In an 1853 piece for Household Words called “Going Astray”, Dickens recalled getting lost as a child in London, and roaming late into the night. The experience sparked a lifetime of nightwalking. “I have gone astray since, many times, and farther afield,” he wrote. At that time London was going through profound industrial and social change, and Beaumont attributes his unique intimacy with local characters from all backgrounds to those nocturnal journeys. Nightwalking was also, for Dickens, a release from the exertions of writing. If he was prevented from roaming after dark, he became frustrated, and in a letter in 1844 wrote: “Put me down on Waterloo-bridge at eight o’clock in the evening, with leave to roam about as long as I like, and I would come home, as you know, panting to go on… I am sadly strange as it is, and can’t settle.” Beaumont argues that writers who walk at night act out the essential writerly sense of being other-worldly. Writers and nightwalkers view the everyday from an outsider’s perspective: as cities look different at night, so everything looks different through the eyes of a poet. And poets, like nightwalkers, are often viewed with suspicion. For Edgar Allen Poe, nightwalking was “the demonic embodiment of the industrial metropolitan city at its most alien and unknowable”. Rupert Brooke wrote that “cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night”. Beaumont also looks at Chaucer, Blake, Samuel Johnson and Thomas De Quincey, and gives a poignant account of the Romantic poet John Clare’s long walk to Northborough after he escaped from an asylum in Essex in 1841. Clare’s journey was intense and dreamlike, but also unsettling. “I’m not an outlaw in this midnight deep,” he wrote, but admitted to being “uncomfortable and wretched” on his journey. Clare’s difficult nightwalk challenges the peaceful, Romantic peripatetic vision from contemporaries Keats and Wordsworth. Beaumont unearths a historical distinction between the “common” and “uncommon” nightwalker – vagrants against wanderers, criminals versus gentlefolk at leisure – and Clare’s writing, poetic and desperate at the same time, feels like a transgression between conflicting tribes. Despite a cursory acknowledgement towards the beginning that nightwalking isn’t gender-neutral – Beaumont concedes that women who walk at night have long been seen as either prostitutes or potential victims – he then largely dismisses women from his study. Welcome exceptions include a precis of The Midnight Ramble, a fictional account (anonymous, but probably written by a man) from 1754 of two gleeful women who explore London by night in disguise. They end up playing a trick on their unfaithful husbands and returning home triumphant. But even this wonderfully mischievous story is subtitled as “a warning to the Female Sex, not to trust themselves abroad on any Frolicks, in this lewd and wicked Town, at unseasonable Hours”.