Miriam Margolyes: In Dickens' footsteps

In 1842, the young writer travelled to America with high hopes - and was horrified by what he found. Now, Miriam Margolyes has retraced his route, she tells Robert Dawson Scott
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The Independent Culture

Those who find solace in the idea that the current belligerent, bullying, selfish version of the United States is some sort of blip may be surprised by the following remark made in 1842: "If the Americans don't embroil us in a war before long it will not be their fault. What with their swagger and bombast, ...their claims for indemnification, I have strong apprehensions."

Those who find solace in the idea that the current belligerent, bullying, selfish version of the United States is some sort of blip may be surprised by the following remark made in 1842: "If the Americans don't embroil us in a war before long it will not be their fault. What with their swagger and bombast, ...their claims for indemnification, I have strong apprehensions."

That's Charles Dickens speaking, no less, in what is probably his least-read book, American Notes. He goes on: "I do believe that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty's head will be dealt by this Nation in the ultimate failure of its example to the earth."

American Notes is a kind of travel book, written when Dickens was just 29. It is an account of his journey in 1842 from Massachusetts to Virginia, from Washington DC to St Louis, and from Niagara to Montreal. He travelled with his wife, leaving their four children behind in England. Burning with the passionate idealism of youth and hungry for something other than the stuffy class-ridden society he chafed against at home, he went looking for the Great Republic. He had high hopes of this young country that had rung the Liberty Bell, that had declared its independence and backed it with its fine new constitution.

As anyone who has waded through the largely unloved Martin Chuzzlewit may have surmised, he returned a disillusioned man. The vicious, not to say crude, satire in the American episodes of that book, written the year after his journey, drew heavily on what he had found.

"I am disappointed," Dickens wrote. "This is not the republic I came to see. This is not the republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal monarchy even with its sickening accompaniments of court circulars to such a government as this... and even England, bad and faulty as the old land is, and miserable as millions of her people are, rises in the comparison... I would not condemn you to a year's residence on this side of the Atlantic for any money."

Did Dickens, more than 150 years ago, really discern the shoots of what America would grow into? Or is it all different now? Slavery, at least - one of the things that appalled him - is a thing of the past. Is there anything about American Notes, besides the odd quotation wrenched out of context, that still resonates?

Miriam Margolyes, the Bafta-winning actress who has recently endeared herself to a fresh generation of film-goers as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies, thought that there might be. So she set off last year, with a film crew from BBC4 in tow, to retrace the steps Dickens took 163 years ago. She travelled, as he had done, by river, road and rail, visiting the same places and occasionally even sleeping, if not in the same bed, certainly in the same inn. Her series, Dickens in America, is coming to a small screen near you from tomorrow.

As a serious Dickens-ophile (her one-woman show Dickens' Women won her an Olivier nomination for best actress), Margolyes knew and admired American Notes. "I think people forget what a wonderful journalist he was, you see, because he started as a journalist and he never lost that gift of placing a person right in the scene." Nor was she disappointed once she started to retrace the journey. "Of all the jobs that I have had in my life, this was the best," she says, now recovered from four months on the road. "It was a long haul, but every moment was completely fascinating."

Richard Shaw, the producer of the series, clearly has some sort of thing about going on holiday with Jewish ladies of a certain age. He was the man responsible for sending Irma Kurtz across Europe in the footsteps of Mark Twainfor another BBC4 series, called Mediterranean Tales, which was broadcast last year. With its combination of award-winning photography, Twain's keen eye and Kurtz's sharp commentary, it turned into one of the channel's sleeper hits. Margolyes looks like being at least as good a travelling companion.

She followed Dickens' route meticulously. He sailed on Cunard's flagship; so did she, on the gaudy Queen Mary 2. He was shown around New York by the police; she went out on patrol at the 6th precinct and got involved in a spot of domestic violence.

Dickens visited the great Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (he had a bit of a thing about prisons, having seen his father incarcerated for debt), where, to his horror, he found that a regime that considered itself benevolent forced prisoners to spend their entire sentences in solitary confinement. Margolyes went there, too; it is now maintained as a distinctly creepy semi-ruin. And she also visited a contemporary women's prison in Virginia, to see what has changed. (Answer: rather more than the media image of the American penal system would allow you to suppose.)

Margolyes found herself coming "as fresh to it as Dickens was" (she has an apartment in Los Angeles, but had not travelled further afield). St Louis, in the prairies, turned out to be the most foreign place of all. "They just didn't see the world as I see it." For her, the electoral map that has Democrats on the wings and Republicans in the middle became a human reality, with the added complication of religion. "The people that go to church and the people that don't go to church are two different worlds, and largely speaking the Democrats are secular and the Republicans are religious, and convinced fundamentalists as well. It was discomfiting to feel so apart."

Oddly enough, the place that moved Dickens most, the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in Massachusetts, was what touched Margolyes, too. And some of the things he disliked most, such as the dismal town of Cairo in Illinois, the model for the ghastly Eden in Martin Chuzzlewit, are still there and as dismal as ever. "He was right about Americans' essential humourlessness," Margolyes concludes. But, despite their mutual dislike of some aspects of America, like her hero she found herself changed by the experience. It made Dickens into a better, more profound writer, Margolyes argues in the series. For her, it was more humbling.

"I've always been very doctrinaire," she confesses, "but I felt that the human spirit overrode those feelings, the human link between people and the warmth and generosity. I was able to relate to people whose opinions I profoundly disapprove of. That is ultimately a sentimental attitude and that's what I've always tried to avoid. Perhaps I'm mellowing. I just felt you had to retain that human link or you are lost."

'Dickens in America' starts tonight at 8.30pm on BBC4

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