Can this be true? We’ve always known that Charles Dickens was a very enthusiastic (probably obsessive) walker, sometimes by day and sometimes all night, since he suffered from insomnia. Even so I was amazed, belatedly, to read an essay by Peter Ackroyd titled “All the time in the world – writers and the nature of time,” in which he says Dickens “insisted on walking for as much time each day as he wrote.”
Really? Literally insisted? Did he actually calculate how long he’d worked each day and then insist on walking for exactly the same number of hours? It does seem strange, but I’m not saying he didn’t.
There is an extant interview with an unnamed somebody who took dictation for Dickens. It appeared in the Louisville Commercial and then in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in 1882. Part of it runs like this:
“‘You were an amanuensis of Charles Dickens, were you not?’
‘Yes, I did shorthand work for Mr. Dickens for eighteen months. I did not take dictation for any of his novels, only his fugitive pieces. He dictated to me most of his articles in All the Year Round. He was a very clever gentleman to those under him. He always treated me very well, indeed. Most people seem to think Dickens was a ready writer. This is by no means the case. He used to come into his office in St. Catherine Street about eight o’clock in the morning and begin dictating. He would walk up and down the floor several times after dictating a sentence or a paragraph and ask me to read it. I would do so, and he would, in nine cases out of ten, order me to strike out certain words and insert others. He was generally tired out by eleven o’clock, and went down to his club on the Strand. “
Well, that would work, wouldn’t it – three hours work, lunch, three hours walking. But did he then go back and work for a few hours more, which required a few more hours walking? Maybe.
All those “writing habits of famous authors” websites will tell you that Dickens walked for three hours a day, but he must surely have walked more hours than that. You’ll also find sources that say he walked 12 miles a day, some say he often walked twenty. You do the math.
History.com tells us “He kept to a military-strict schedule, always writing in his study between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. before striking off on three-hour walks.” Which would presumably leave him two hours short by Ackroyd’s account, unless he made it up later.
Ackroyd is, or at least was, a walker. Recent interviews have described him as wheezing when he walks, and one describes him as having a torn ligament. Still 2014 piece in the Financial Times, he’s quoted as saying, “My hobby was always walking. That’s what I did most of. Experiencing the sensation and the atmosphere of it and getting the pavement underneath your feet is very good therapy.”
The author of the piece, Hannah Beckerman, wonders were he finds time for such therapy, given that he’s always writing three projects at any one time biography in the morning, history book in the afternoon, fiction in the evening. His answer: “If you cut up your day well enough, it’s perfectly possible to do anything.” No doubt.
Ackroyd and I did share an American agent for a while. She didn’t have many tales of his walking, though there were a few of him falling over drunk and being bundled into taxis. There was also talk that he’d reformed.
I’m not very good at cutting up my day. There are some days on which I do very little work at all – because of a combination of sloth and self-doubt - which means there are days when I actually spend more time walking that I spend writing. But I don’t insist on it.