‘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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Books -

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”.

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