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Matthew Beaumont. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.

London and New York: Verso, 2015. Pp. xii + 484. £20/$29.95.

For Matthew Beaumont, in this fascinating literary and cultural history of nightwalking, Dickens
represents something like the culmination of a tradition stretching back to at least the middle ages,
when night was legally defined as a separate sphere, and those who trespassed against the daily
curfew (beginning between 8 and 10pm) were subject to persecution and arrest. It is this social and
cultural division between the nocturnal and the diurnal that Beaumont is interested in tracing, and
especially in identifying those more or less marginalized figures who walked at night in London, the
“great wen” as Cobbett called it, where night-time was at once an ordeal (or refuge) for the poor
and a playground for the rich. Dickens’s Master Humphrey is one such nightwalker, who wanders
“by night and day, at all hours and seasons, in city streets and quiet country parts” (385), making
him, like many others in this book, “the victim of popular prejudices about men of slightly odd
appearance who walk about the metropolis at night because they do not feel at home in it during
the day” (385). His fading from view after the opening chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop is lamented
by Beaumont, for whom “Dickens squandered a subtle and insidiously unsettling sense of moral and
psychological danger when he expelled Master Humphrey” (390). Perhaps the major success of
Nightwalking is its excavation, across a period of five hundred years, of the historical and cultural
conditions that allowed this sense of “moral and psychological danger” which Dickens partially
suppressed to attach itself to the nightwalker in Britain.

Beaumont pursues his investigation chronologically in four parts, with the medieval and early-
modern origins of the nightwalker as the topic of Part One. The phrase “common nightwalker,” he
demonstrates, was originally applied equally to men and women, only later coming to specifically
designate female prostitution (16). From at least 1285 the act of nightwalking was criminalized
irrespective of any illicit activity, so that “Anyone on the streets [at night] with no good reason was
automatically liable to arrest” (19). Nighttime activity thus came to demarcate the line between the
respectable and the non-respectable citizen, although “good reputation” (31) could also be used as a
justification for appearing outside after curfew, so that the law served primarily to victimize the
poor, unemployed and indigent, who were feared by those with wealth and property. Beaumont
later argues that this class distinction can be used to divide nightwalkers into two main groups.
“Noctambulants” (136), a term coined around 1700, were those “at the upper end of the social
scale,” who “made excursions into the nocturnal streets because they had chosen to do so” (138),
while “noctivagants” (138) were those who had no choice but to walk the streets at night, such as
“the destitute, the unemployed and unemployable, the indigent, the aged” (138). One figure firmly
in the first category was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who in 1543 blazed a trail of destruction
across Cheapside with a group of friends, smashing windows, shouting obscenities and throwing
stones at prostitutes (45-6). While in prison following this event, Surrey wrote a “Satire against the
Citizens of London,” attacking the sins of which he was himself a part (48), and hence providing a
typically complex example of the subject positions Beaumont interrogates. Though Beaumont
attempts to uncover the stories of female nightwalkers, his writers are usually male, and often
significant literary figures, such as Shakespeare and Thomas Dekker, the latter of whom wrote
pamphlets following the journeys of an imagined “Bellman” (91) (or nightwatchman) which were at
least partly on the side of the watchman’s nightwalker quarry.

Part Two begins with William Hogarth’s painting “Night” (1736), described by Beaumont as one of
the greatest illustrations of the eighteenth-century “nightmare” (112) of Enlightenment’s collapse
into chaos and unreason, a fear which according to Foucault haunted the period. The century was
also marked by the colonization of the night by gaslight (pioneered in London in 1684 (118)), driven
by the expansion of capitalism and commodity culture. Among the inhabitants of this newly lighted,
if not wholly enlightened city were the “self-appointed moralists who patrolled the streets at night”
(126), at once appalled and fascinated by the nighttime lives of female prostitutes. Samuel Johnson
responded to this trend in anti-moralistic terms in a series of articles in the Rambler in 1751 (127-
29). Another major genre of this period was “the nocturnal picaresque” (141), adventure stories of
(mainly male) rambles through the night-time streets by authors such as Ned Ward. Night was also
important to the writers of Grub Street, who lived “semi-criminal lives” (174) working on low-paid
commissions, and typically rejected the day-time world of the bourgeoisie. Allied to this group was
Johnson’s friend Richard Savage, who created the proto-Romantic figure of ‘the Wanderer’ in a
poem of 1728 (206), and was involved in a murder during one drunken night-time incident.

Wordsworth, Clare, De Quincey and Blake are the key characters in Part Three. Wordsworth
emerges as a visitor of the night, expressing sympathy with the noctivagants he meets, such as the
discharged soldier encountered in Book IV of The Prelude (1805), whom Beaumont interprets as a
spectral or distorted “other” of the poet (249-53). John Clare, meanwhile, was an unwilling
nightwalker, especially in 1841, when he escaped from an insane asylum in Essex one evening and
proceeded to walk home to Northborough, over 100 miles away (255). In his tortured and delirious
account of this journey, Beaumont identifies “the authentic voice of the vagrants that Wordsworth
loved to encounter on the public road at night” (257). If Wordsworth’s night-time is predominantly
rural, William Blake’s is resolutely urban. Indeed, in many ways London is darkness for Blake, its
defining symbols the hangman’s noose at Tyburn and “London Stone” (278); symbols of the capital’s
ancient repressions. In De Quincey, meanwhile, Beaumont finds a hypocritical inhabitant of the
night, who grew up amid prostitutes and poverty, yet displayed contempt and disgust for the poor.

The final section is dominated by Dickens, though also finds space for Pierce Egan’s Life in London
(1821) and Leigh Hunt’s “Walks Home by Night” (1828). Beaumont explores events that will be
familiar to Dickens scholars, such as Dickens’s famous nightwalk of October 1857, during his growing
estrangement from Catherine, when he crossed 30 miles from London to Gad’s Hill. Beaumont
dwells on the relentless energy of Dickens’s nightwalks, calling him “a species of ‘mad traveler’”
(356), his journey to Gad’s Hill Place “a flight from both his everyday life, including his wife, and from
his self” (356). Nightwalking, like writing, became “a compulsive activity” (358) for Dickens, as he
himself expressed in the 1860 article “Night Walks”. Like Wordsworth, it brought him into
“sympathetic relations” (366) with those condemned to wander through the lack of a secure home.
As noted, The Old Curiosity Shop is Beaumont’s key example of nightwalking in Dickens’s novels, but
Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are also discussed, including Sidney Carton’s “mystic
nightwalk” (396) at the end of the latter, before his final redemptive act of self-sacrifice.

Nightwalking has clearly been designed with a general as well as academic readership in mind,
having a foreword and afterword by novelist Will Self and an affordable price tag. It deserves to find
one. Although little of the material on Dickens will be new to informed readers, the book
convincingly reframes his restless nighttime habit as more than the eccentricity of one man. It
instead becomes part of a long history of noctambulism and noctivagancy, which is here carefully
detailed and compellingly presented.

University of Manchester Ben Moore