Two new biographies of Charles Dickens are timed to celebrate the bicentenary of a writer second in line only to Shakespeare, writes Geordie Williamson
CHARLES Dickens’s ascent to the sharp end of the canon, where he now stands elbow to elbow with Shakespeare, has been neither smooth nor assured. There have been moments since the author’s death when his multifarious works looked set for history’s dustbin.
The man was inseparable from the Victorian era he lived through, with its taste for sentimentality and melodrama, its deathfetishes and sexual taboos. Dickens didn’t just bear witness to this age of social and economic extremes in a nation drunk on industry. He helped create the structures of feeling against which subsequent generations would rebel.
Conrad’s novels, Shaw’s plays, and Lytton Strachey’s brutally witty biographies all worked to tear the lace from the lampshades of the Victorian worldview. Their modernist successors blew the whole balustraded edifice sky high. It was a shift in literary taste so total that, in 1939, critic Edmund Wilson could fairly report ‘‘ of all the English writers, Charles Dickens has received in his own country the scantiest attention from either biographers, scholars, or critics’’. When Bloomsbury did deign to notice him, Wilson continued, it made Dickens ‘‘ into one of those Victorian scarecrows with ludicrous Freudian flaws — so infantile, pretentious, and hypocritical as to deserve only a perfunctory sneer’’.
Of a slew of works about the man and his work timed to appear for the bicentenary of his birth, two English biographies — Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens and Robert Douglas-fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist — are exemplary instances of a stunning turnaround in Dickens’s reputation.
If we date the founding of modern Dickens studies to Edmund Wilson’s essay The Two Scrooges quoted above (giving due credit to George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton, who kept his flickering flame in earlier years), then the seven decades since have seen an expansion of interest in the author almost without precedent.
What happened between then and now? It was the discovery, as Angus Wilson wrote in 1970’s The World of Charles Dickens, ‘‘ that Dickens, with his extraordinary intuition, leaps the century and speaks to our fears, our violence, our trust in the absurd, more than any other Victorian writer’’.
Biography has been crucial to this reappraisal. Painstaking efforts to disentangle the author from his myth have led to the emergence of a very different Dickens: a less ideal specimen, certainly, but one whose flaws are magnetically human. We have discovered a man whose immense capacity for kindness did not extend to those closest to him; a dreamer with a shrewd eye for the bottom line; a sentimental comedian; and an industrious playboy. For all his gregariousness and fame, he emerges from these biographies a solitary figure. He stands apart, not just from his intimates, but also from the public whose adulation he sought.
The task of demythologising Dickens begins early, with the vast biography undertaken by his best friend and literary executor John Forster. His exhaustive The Life of Charles Dickens, published in the years immediately after Dickens’s death (and recently reissued by Oxford University Press), is often a pompous and reverential account. But it is not unperceptive or uncritical. Forster admired the writer as a genius. But he saw the human wreckage left in the wake of those magnificent literary labours.
Dickens’s imaginative constructions were a failed flight from the world, he observed. The control-freak novelist could impose order on his fictional creations. He could bind characters to his will; everyday life was more stubborn and less malleable. Dickens, wrote Forster, ‘‘ had not in himself the resources that such a man, judging from the surface, might be expected to have had’’: Not his genius only, but his whole nature, was too exclusively made up of sympathy for, and with, the real in its most intense form, to be sufficiently provided against failure in the realities around him. There was for him no ‘‘ city of the mind’’ against outward ills, for inner consolation and shelter.
Dickens’s friend quoted extensively from their correspondence. And while he writes only briefly of the end of Dickens’s unhappy marriage to his wife Catherine, who bore him 10 children — a cruel, public break engineered by the author (in cahoots with Forster, who drew up the legal papers) — he made public the signal event of Dickens’s childhood: a period spent working in a blacking warehouse when he was 12, after his father’s debts had sent him to Marshalsea prison.
It is impossible to overstate how scarifying an experience this was for Dickens. His time spent lettering labels for boot polish was a humiliation that never faded; a goad to achievement that never failed; and a sympathetic education in ordinary life that stayed with him, even in the midst of wealth and success.
Every subsequent biographer of the author has returned to Forster’s Life and mined it for data. But the other significant event in Dickens’s biography is not to be found there. It was not until Edgar Johnson’s magisterial mid-century Dickens: His Tragedy and Tri- umph that most readers learned of Ellen ‘‘ Nelly’’ Ternan, the young actress with whom the author maintained a semi-secret relationship for the last 12 years of his life.
The American biographer’s scholarship was wide-ranging and impeccable. So when Johnson’s Dickens turned out to be a radical firebrand, hostile to the iniquitous society of his day — as well as a man who kept a mistress — readers accepted that their cosily familiar author would now on be seen in a new light. Those who came after, from Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie to Peter Ackroyd, refined and deepened this sense, of a darker and more damaged Dickens: one whose humanitarianism was distinct from the dull civic-mindedness we associate with the Victorians.
It was Tomalin, in 1991’s The Invisible Woman, who used the available material to the most startling ends. Her biography inverted the usual process, by which Ternan (and other female satellites in Dickens’s life, including his wife’s sisters, Mary and Georgina Hogarth) were kept to the domestic sidelines. Instead it placed this much younger woman (Dickens was 45 when he met Ternan; she was 18) at the story’s heart.
Tomalin’s account was widely praised for its combination of research and imaginative reconstruction: a necessary fusion, since the women in Dickens’s life were neither observed nor recorded in the same way as their male counterparts. If it did not settle once and for all the nature of the most important relationship in Dickens’s later life (whether their affair was consummated, or even sexual in nature, remains contentious), the biography made visible the experiences of women who, with varying degrees of talent and success, carved out independent lives for themselves in a pre-feminist era.
Her new attempt at a life of Dickens is more traditional. It places the writer at the centre of events, though Ternan remains the most important person in his later years, and introduces little in the way of new material,
Dickens Dream by R.W. Buss (1875), from London’s Charles Dickens House, now the Charles Dickens Museum