Cabbing it with Charles Dickens

My latest New York Times Magazine mini-column is on London’s taxi drivers, who memorize 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks to obtain a license; they emerge from the training with a larger hippocampus. In the smaller city of his day, Charles Dickens also mastered the city’s roads — to avoid being overcharged. But eventually, as he explains in an essay published in 1860 in All the Year Round, an interview with one man left him with “a more charitable view of the business and trials of cab-driving.”

My wife, accompanied by a servant, and our first-born, an infant, aged three months, had started, one November afternoon, to visit a relative at the other side of London. The day was misty, but when the evening came, the whole town was filled with a dense fog, as thick as soup. I gave them up at an early hour, never supposing that they would attempt to break through the black smoky barrier, and accomplish a journey of nearly nine miles. In this I was mistaken, for towards eleven o’clock the door-bell rang, and they presented themselves muffled up like stage-coachmen. The account I received was, that a four-wheeled cab had been found, that they had been three hours and a half upon the road, that the cabman had walked nearly the whole way with a lamp at the head of his horse, and that he was now outside awaiting payment.

I felt a powerful struggle going on within me. The legislature had fixed the price of cab-work at two shillings an hour, or sixpence a mile, but it had said nothing about snowstorms, fluctuations in the price of provender, or November fogs. There was no contract between my wife and the cabman, and she had not engaged him by the hour, so that, protected by the Act of Parliament, I might have sent out four-and-sixpence for the nine miles’ ride by the servant, and have closed the door securely against the driver. Actuated, perhaps, as much by curiosity, as a sense of justice, I did not do this, but ordered the man in, and gave him the dangerous permission to name his own price. He was a middle-aged driver, with a sharp nose, and when he entered the room, he placed his hat upon the floor, and seemed a little bewildered by novelty of his situation.

“If I am to, I am,” he said,” but I’d my rather leave it to you, sir.”

“This is a journey,” I replied, “hardly within the meaning of the act, and whatever you charge, I will cheerfully pay.”

“Well,” he said, with much deliberation, “I don’t think five shillin’s ought to hurt you?”

As you probably know if you encountered any news source of any kind last week, February 7 was the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. In honor of the occasion, the Guardian filmed Simon Callow on Dickens’ London, the British Council sponsored a readathon, A.N. Devers visited London, Sam Anderson recalled a visit to Dickens World, and Ralph Fiennes introduced the Morgan Library’s special exhibition and signed on to play Dickens in The Invisible Woman.

Coincidentally, I’ve been gearing up to re-read my favorite Dickens novels: Bleak House and Great Expectations. Several years ago I visited his only surviving house in London.


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