Sunday, 3 May 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you can’t sleep
“All who love Dickens have a strange sense that he is really inexhaustible,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, which is one of the reasons why he is a good companion for an insomniac in the long hours of the night. Dickens’ sheer volume of work is such that it will keep you going through lengthy bouts of sleeplessness – more than a dozen lengthy works of fiction and many more short stories, thousands of letters and essays and pieces of journalism – but he also endured his own bouts of insomnia, which may be of comfort to fellow sufferers.
Perhaps the best of his writing on the worst kind of sleeplessness is ‘Night Walks’, an essay published in his magazine, ‘All the Year Round’, on July 21st 1860. Dickens had established the journal after falling out with his friends and publishers, Bradbury and Evans, when he felt they had not been sufficiently supportive to him during the break-up of his marriage in 1858. There was much to keep him awake at night at the time: rumours were spreading of his affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and of a possible relationship with his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. Dickens had taken the extraordinary step of issuing a public statement in June 1858, in which he acknowledged the separation from his wife, but denounced ‘the unwholesome air’ of ‘the breath of these slanders’.
If he felt himself to be shrouded in a dark miasma, then a sense of these ominous shadows hangs over ‘Night Walks’, in which Dickens describes a nightmarish tour of London, a city inhabited by ‘enormous hosts of dead… if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin’s point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into.’
As Dickens walks, he begins to understand an ‘experience of houselessness’, a state of mind, as well as a series of stated places: Newgate Prison, Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, Waterloo Bridge, and the dark river below, haunted by ‘the spectres of suicides’, and above ‘the wild moon and clouds… as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed’.
All of which might seem the very opposite of soothing, and yet I find it strangely consoling, lying awake but safely housed, at home in my own bed.