Two new bi­ogra­phies of Charles Dick­ens are timed to cel­e­brate the bi­cen­te­nary of a writer sec­ond in line only to Shake­speare, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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