A Victorian Canterbury Tales
Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium is a Victorian version of the Canterbury Tales in which the members of a Canterbury temperance society go on an excursion to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The shrine they go to worship at – the Crystal Palace, filled with the technological marvels of the age – is a thoroughly secular one, but like Chaucer’s pilgrims, they set off in high spirits and with high hopes, telling stories en route. Unlike Chaucer’s pilgrims they tell stories on the way home, too. Chaucer’s pilgrimage stops just short of Canterbury, so we know nothing of their experiences at the shrine of St Thomas. Chaucer’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries must have wondered what they got up to when they arrived, for in the middle of the fifteenth century an anonymous poet wrote the Tale of Beryn which fills in the blank. For modern readers perhaps the most surprising thing about this work is the Pardoner’s unambiguously heterosexual pursuit of the barmaid. (Modern readers always assume that the Pardoner is gay.) Mr Blackwood gives a full account of the excursionists’ adventures in the Crystal Palace, as well as providing them with tales to tell on the homeward journey, tales which are very different in character from the ones they tell on the outward. One wonders whether Chaucer’s pilgrims would have been changed in any way by their encounter with St Thomas (or the barmaid) and whether that change would have been reflected in the tales they told. Above all, one wonders who would have won the story-telling competition. My money’s on the Merchant.
Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium is not a slavish re-telling of the Canterbury Tales – all the tales in it are wholly original – but there are parallels in the structure. The Crystal Palace and the Shrine of St Thomas are obvious parallels; so, too are Harrison’s Hostel, the furniture warehouse in Pimlico that was converted into a sort of Travel Lodge for visitors, and the Chequer of Hope, the main pilgrim inn in Canterbury, illustrated above. Built in 1392 and destroyed by fire in 1865, the latter was situated at the corner of the High Street and Mercery Lane. (A few bits remain in the facades of present buildings.) Some of the Mr Blackwood characters have obvious Chaucerian ancestors. Corporal Costello, the Waterloo veteran, and his son George, a bugler in the Buffs, are obviously related to the Knight and the Squire, ditto the musical artiste who styles herself the Duchess of Croydon and the Wife of Bath, together with Mme Fontana, the fake medium, and the Pardoner.
In 1851 the Canterbury excursionists would have taken the westerly route to London through Edenbridge and Redhill, then designated Reigate. (The modern route, completed in 1868, branches off the earlier one at Tonbridge – commonly spelt Tunbridge until the 1890s – and continues through Sevenoaks and Orpington to London Bridge. Charing Cross, the present terminus of the line, was not opened until 1864.) Chaucer’s pilgrims took the more northerly route through Rochester and Faversham, a 68 mile journey which would have taken three days. One final point: in order to allow enough time for my excursionists to tell all their tales, I had to put them on board a special, which from time to time is forced to stop at signals whilst scheduled trains go past. According to Bradshaw, the scheduled service from Canterbury to London in 1851 took 3 hours and 55 minutes.