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Recollections of A Year Abroad in Europe & Africa

Recollections of A Year Abroad in Europe & Africa by SLACK, John Hamilton [Charles Dickens] (1858)

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Author: SLACK, John Hamilton [Charles Dickens]
Title: Random Recollections of A Year Abroad in Europe & Africa
Year: 1858
Publisher: Unpublished Manuscript
Place: Philadelphia; Liverpool; Isle of Man; London
Dust Jacket: No
Signed: Yes
Price: £1650
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Added under Manuscripts  

ff [4] 166, c60,000 words. A lively and detailed manuscript memoir of a long trip to England by a gifted young Philadelphia physician and, later, fish culturist John H Slack (1834-1874) including a purported meeting with Charles Dickens. Provenance: from the collection of novelist Monica Dickens, great grand daughter of Charles Dickens, with a 1955 TLS to her laid in from Morris Spivack (Cambridge, Mass) enquiring 'if you have done anything in the way of collecting Dickensiana and especially writing your own commentary on his life and works.' J I Merritt has published a brief biography of Slack (The American Fly-Fisher, Winter 2011) which refers in passing to his trip to Europe but gives his 'chief passion' as natural history which led him to join the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, to excavate a dinosaur at Haddonfield and finally turn to fish culture in New Jersey - a 'Catalogue of Fishes' from Slack's Troutdale Fish Ponds is laid into this manuscript.

Bound in half brown pebbled morocco over marbled boards, spine nicely relaid, marbled endpapers, inner hinges reinforced along gutter. An albumen portrait of the bearded author has been laid down before the title page. Slack writes in a forward sloping, cursive hand which is easily legible. On the title page the work is referred to as 'Volume I' but in his preface (signed April 19 1858) Slack writes of being discouraged from preparing an account of his trip to Egypt because of the publication of 'that capital work of W.C. Prime, Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia covering the same ground' so it is unclear whether he completed this project.

Slack graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1856, immediately undertaking this trip before completing his medical training and receiving his final degree in 1859; he wrote this manuscript during the intervening period as he puts it in 'hours stolen from sleep after hard days... in my Capacity of a Medical student' for circulation among a 'large circle of friends'. Stating that he wrote the manuscript with reference to his private travel journal Slack insists that the end product is sui generis, noting on the verso of the title page: 'Written according to his own fancy by John Hamilton Slack In his own office in the Second district of the city of Philadelphia.'

Slack's narrative begins with him crossing the Atlantic from New York on May 1st [1856] aboard the 'good ship Arctic', giving an interesting account of his cabin fellows, several of them Germans making their way home 'having made a little money in the west' and a New Yorker, Reed McIlvaine, travelling for his health. After being appointed unofficial doctor to the voyage Slack watched the clipper 'Dreadnought' roar past and arrived in Liverpool with his 'cigars, pistols and jewellry' after a 28 day crossing, promptly rented rooms in the Queen's Hotel in Lime Street where he regretted the lack of a parlour and 'regular barrooms', listened to the organ in St George's Hall, and expresses his surprise that the term 'Yankee is applied to all Americans' (as it still is in Britain).

Continuing to the Isle of Man Slack claims that while there he spent time with Charles Dickens: 'a pleasant dark haired man who I immediately set down as a literary man his name he kept secret until his departure and I found to my surprise that it was Charles Dickens the great author, Our conversation was frequently on literary topics, and I more than once gave a fine American opinion of Dickens.' On the following day he went fishing with Robert Rawson and the purported Charles Dickens although a chronology of Dickens' life suggests that Dickens went nowhere near the Isle of Man in the summer of 1856.

Most of the remaining two thirds of the diary is devoted to Slack's time in London where he spent an uncomfortable first evening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane attending a benefit performance for 'Mr Balfe Leader of the Orchestra at Drury Lane and well known on this side of the pond by his opera of the Bohemian Girls'. Slack was much impressed by London's size and cosmopolitanism and determined to see and experience every aspect of the city's life. His narrative is at its most engaging when he observes London street life with its 'Hand organs and Monkies, White mice, Happy families and the everlasting Punch and Judy... bands of Negro serenaders... But the most curious were the street acrobats...' At one point Slack lodged with a veteran of the Crimean War the physician Edwin Oldham who offers chastening testimony on the horrors he has seen as well as Florence Nightingale: 'a fussy old maid who thought she knew more about disease than all the Surgeons in the army, a rather different opinion from that held by the world at large, though shared by all the Odessa surgeons'.

Slack records a dozen visits to the British Museum and 'The Zoological gardens were a favourite place of resort to me' but somehow the chaos of London life keeps breaking in, from his unsatisfactory first night seat at Drury Lane to the comically 'huge He goat of enormous size and powerful odor' kept in the back yard of his lodging. Undeterred, Slack provides a lively account of his visits to established sights like the Royal Exchange as well as the new attractions of high-Victorian England which included the 'Steamer Great Eastern, better known as the Leviathan, this huge monster' - and there is a whole chapter devoted to 'religious edifices'.

The final chapters of the diary take Slack to Birmingham, Warwick and, of course, Stratford upon Avon (one of Slack's chapter has a Shakespearean epigraph) where he was welcomed to Shakespeare's birthplace by 'a pretty English lass of some eighteen summers who with a low curtsy and "Good day Sir" invited me upstairs'. The journal ends with Slack crossing to the continent and landing at Antwerp where his travels evidently continued.
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