Tuesday, 2 November 2010

From Dickens to Chaucer

Few Dickens scholars know that he was born just round the corner from my birthplace in Portsmouth. Here's the room where he was born. It's not the original bed but a similar style (I was born in a bedsit in a terrace house). I didn't visit his house for over 40 years. He visited Cambridge a few times, staying at The Eagle in 1859. He visited Italy in 1844.

Now I live in Trumpington, allegedly named after a tribe called the Trumps. Chaucer's The Reeve's Tale is set there.

At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;

The location of the mill is in doubt. It's unlikely to be at Byron's Pool. In 1380-2 Chaucer's wife and Lady Blanche de Trumpington were in the service of the Duchess of Lancaster, so maybe Chaucer visited Trumpington even if he didn't visit Cambridge. He visited Lombardy on business.

With Italian relatives we went to Stratford. Here's Shakespeare's house. Shakespeare may have performed at The Eagle as part of a group of actors but there's no proof. His use of Cambridge jargon has led some people to suggest that he was a student there. There's no proof that he visited Italy either, though his plays contain so many references to Italy that some strange theories have been suggested.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived for quite a while in Portsmouth. However, little is known about the education of Sherlock Holmes. It's assumed from references to "the university" in "The Gloria Scott", "The Musgrave Ritual", and to some extent "The Adventure of the Three Students", that he attended Oxford or Cambridge. Baring-Gould believed textual evidence indicated that Holmes attended both, though Dorothy L. Sayers thought he was a chemistry student at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, which would fit in with his evident knowledge of forensics. He was born on January 6, 1854, which would put his student years in the 1870s, but there's no evidence of a Sherlock Holmes at the college then, though a photograph from 1878 (one of the earliest college photos ever taken) has several blanks amongst the captions, and several faces smeared by the long exposure, one of them suspiciously Holmesian. Mycroft's clearly well acquainted with Cambridge, so perhaps Sherlock just visited his older brother. During his detective career he visited Cambridge several times, taking the train from King's Cross. In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" he uses a tracker dog in Cambridge "In half an hour, we were clear of the town and hastening down a country road. The road took a sweep to the south of the town, and continued in the opposite direction to that in which we started. ... This should be the village of Trumpington to the right of us."

Florence is the only Italian city definitely visited by Holmes, though he may have visited Milan

Last weekend we stumbled upon Bunyan's Chimney during a walk. It's all that's left of a cottage where Bunyan preached and maybe stayed. "Pilgrim's Progress" isn't my favourite book, but it was popular I suppose, and may indeed have helped the novel genre develop. It was started in Bedford which I've visited several times without realising its significance. John Bunyan used Stourbridge Fair (near Cambridge) as the inspiration for the Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress. He probably passed through Cambridge. I don't think he could have visited Lombardy.

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