Dickens’s art is like life because, like life, it is irresponsible, because, like life, it is incredible.
—G. K. Chesterton
The biographies of most writers tend to be fascinating up to the time their writing begins in earnest. Perhaps poets of short verse have the time to get up to drunken shenanigans and commit adultery in ways that might prove interesting to read about later, but novelists—especially novelists whose books number pages in the high hundreds—are usually too busy sitting at their desks to do more than go out to dinner occasionally. The more prolific the author, the duller the life. Charles Dickens, in this as in so many things, is an exception. Despite writing fifteen long novels and producing reams of journalism and short stories, he still had time to father ten children; edit magazines; gad about the continent; tour and perform in America; devote himself to worthy charitable endeavors; appear at a stream of public banquets; write and act in amateur theatricals; and, as was revealed after his death, maintain a thirteen-year extramarital relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan. This list of activities was crammed into just thirty-four years. He died—of a stroke, but it’s hard not to think it was fundamentally exhaustion—at the age of fifty-eight.
The more prolific the author, the duller the life.
The first life of Dickens, appearing just a few years after his death, was written by his friend and executor John Forster—and partly by Dickens himself, who provided the biographical information he had spent most of his life keeping hidden. The most famous revelation concerned his father’s imprisonment for debt in the Marshalsea prison. The rest of the family joined him there, except young Charles, who, on his twelfth birthday, was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. His work wasn’t exceptionally arduous, but he found it humiliating, and he never forgave his mother for what he perceived to be her decision to cast him out of the family circle. Dickens’s contemporaries had often commented on the pathos of the children in his works—children orphaned, neglected, unloved, cruelly treated, diseased, and dying—but in light of this revelation, which soon enough converged with the rise of psychoanalysis, critical focus shifted from Dickens’s overt social message to possible hidden personal ones.
Since Forster, there have been many serious and fine, usually very lengthy, biographies of Dickens, appealing to tastes ranging from the narrative to the Freudian. Some of the best? In 1906, G. K. Chesterton gave us a vigorous—and impressively short—Dickens as the Great Man. Edgar Johnson, in the mid-Fifties, provided a thousand-page reassessment that was a cornerstone in the resurgence of Dickens as a hot academic subject. Two of the most notable biographies went head to head—a scholar versus a novelist. In 1988, the American Victorianist Fred Kaplan published a lucid life. Two years later, the English novelist Peter Ackroyd came out with an antic, occasionally hallucinatory one. Now, twenty years later still, there is a new entrant, by Michael Slater, a man who has been deeply immersed in Dickens scholarship and activities since his Dickens and Women in 1983 through his editorship of the complete four-volume journalism finished in 2002.1 As president of Dickens-related organizations on both sides of the Atlantic for many years, he has probably read every piece of Dickens scholarship produced in that time: from tenure-mill articles to the working notes for the novels and the recently completed twelve-volume Pilgrim edition of the letters.
Slater keeps his gaze steadily on Dickens the writer—a harder task then it might at first seem. He begins his book not with Dickens’s birth but with his first surviving piece of writing (a note written when he was eight or nine) and ending with his last (he died at dinner after having worked all day on Edwin Drood). There are plenty of straightforward correspondences. Dickens wrote his first birth scene about a week after his first child was born. As a newly established writer, Dickens went on the Grand Tour in 1844–45; such a trip fills bits of David Copperfield (written in 1849–50) and Little Dorrit (written in 1855–57). Plain sailing. But some direct influences hold wry surprises: Richard Bentley, who hired Dickens to edit the magazine in which Oliver Twist first appeared, and whom Dickens came to despise, was one inspiration for Fagin.
More subtle but still traceable correspondences include the ones that emerged after Dickens’s death: Little Dorrit’s experiences as a child born and raised in the Marshalsea bear a lot of psychic weight. David Copperfield, Dickens’s favorite child of his novels, contains so many rich autobiographical resonances that Slater titles his third chapter, which covers the years 1828–38, “The Copperfield Days” even though the novel had another decade or so to germinate. Other literary facts Slater leaves for us to apply. When Dickens, at eighteen, was training to be a shorthand reporter, he “embarked on a course of miscellaneous literary and historical reading [at the British Museum], including Goldsmith’s History of England, the works of Shakespeare and Addison and, rather startlingly, in September 1830, an old book about female sexuality called Thoughts on the Times, but Chiefly on the Profligacy of Our Women (1779).”
In the richest sections, Slater’s knowledge illuminates even works that we might think of as overfamiliar, such as that annual chestnut “A Christmas Carol,” written for Christmas of 1843, at the beginning of the Hungry Forties. Slater notes the twinning of the pathetic Tiny Tim (whose parents still cling—just barely—to the edges of the respectable even if their older son is not unfamiliar with the inside of a pawn shop) with the ravening wolf-children whom the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge—and his contemporary readers who might walk by such children every day. Surely if our sympathy extends to the one it should to the other? And further: there is another twinning between those children and Scrooge, who had himself been a “poor forgotten” child, kept in an empty boarding school over Christmas by his father. Perhaps we more comfortable middle-class parents should be examining our consciences for ways in which we might be impoverishing our children? Old Scrooge himself weeps to look upon his “poor forgotten self as he had used to be.” Can adults reanimate the sense of burning injustice and impotence that children often feel, to become more imaginatively sympathetic to the children in their care?
And there’s more: The young Scrooge finds comfort in the Arabian Nights—they enrich his fancy and populate his solitude. In his choice of reading, he is thus further twinned with the young David Copperfield in exile at Mr. Creakle’s school entertaining Steerforth, Traddles, and his other classmates late into the night. (David Copperfield, you might recall, grows up to be a novelist.) And finally there is Scrooge’s ultimate twin: Dickens himself. Young Dickens, cast out of his family, also found solace and escape in The Arabian Nights; the older Dickens also concealed his heart-wounds, perhaps, until the writing of these scenes, even from himself. The once elegant but now neglected school building in which the young Scrooge must stay resembles the old house the young Dickens passed on walks and used to imagine himself living in. Thus, says Slater, “The forsaken-child image of the young Dickens sits, deprived of hope but comforted by imaginative literature, in the ruins of his own dream home.” (Prolepsis personified: Dickens finally got his dream house; he bought Gads Hill Place in 1856 and died on one of its sofas.)
Young Dickens, cast out of his family, also found solace and escape in The Arabian Nights.
From reading the Arabian Nights, Dickens learned Scheherazade’s power: to spin out fascinating stories to stave off death. Dickens’s letters entertain their recipients with real people remolded into “richly comic characters.” He learned early not to let the truth get in the way of a good story—he could publish a comic dialogue in which he banters with his publisher Macrone, even though the two men weren’t speaking at the time. A story, if good enough, could lead him into cruelty too, as in the transmutation of his early literary benefactor Leigh Hunt, gentle and generously improvident, into the vampiric narcissist Skimpole.
Even Dickens could not stage-manage all the real-life characters around him. A prime example is his feckless Micawber of a father, who ran up even more debts when he had a son to pay them. The newly flush and established Dickens hoped to put his father out of temptation’s (and embarrassment’s) way by setting his parents up in a little house in the country. As Slater says, “Dickens had, in fact, written the (idyllic) end of their story for his parents, complete with a cast of comic extras (the name of their maidservant, a certain Betty Peek, sounds promising) and it only remained for them to conform to it.” Alas, Mr. John Dickens couldn’t be so easily contained.
Still, very often Dickens found his writing did indeed alter the course of his life. And he was often successful in wrestling his life into the more satisfying fictional shapes he had come to desire, though sometimes his polymorphous productions led other people to try in their turn to wrest them back into some fundamental and stable meaning. All three aspects can be seen in his relations with his wife, Catherine. Charles met Catherine when her father, the editor of The Evening Chronicle, asked him to contribute to it; about twenty-five years later, in his journal Household Words and in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, he “wrote off their marriage” (in Slater’s words) by publishing a badly written farrago channeling blame in her direction. Catherine, however, had kept his early letters to her and asked their daughter Kate to deposit them in the British Museum “so the world may see he loved me once.”
Still, very often Dickens found his writing did indeed alter the course of his life.
Words poured forth from Dickens, bringing him money and renown; forming, sustaining, and destroying friendships; and creating what was arguably the deepest and defining relationship of his life—with his audience. Quite early in his career, as a poem singing his praises proclaimed, Dickens had set out to be a satirist:
Behold! e’en now around your brow th’immortal laurel thickens;
Yes, SWIFT or STERNE might gladly learn a thing or two from DICKENS.
These anonymously published lines were written by—could you guess?—Dickens himself. But the lonely and chilly heights of satire were not for him: “My great ambition is to live in the hearts and homes of home-loving people, and to be connected with the truth of truthful English life.” And, as Slater points out, the more mature Dickens “carefully cultivated public modesty.” Slater notes that Dickens’s relationship with his readers became more intimate over time; Dickens felt it was “personally more affectionate, and like no other man’s.” In the valuable prefaces to his novels, for example, he directly addressed his readers as “Dear Friends.” Slater suggests further that Dickens in the prefaces was both intimate and intimating:
Perhaps Dickens’s Scheherazade side enabled him to tap into the ways in which large numbers of English people at the time felt and thought—and wanted to think of themselves as feeling and thinking. And he was obviously on to something: his early novel Nicholas Nickleby sold 50,000 copies on its first day of publication; the next one, The Old Curiosity Shop, on its first day, sold 100,000. Anthony Trollope, who never sold as many copies as Dickens, mocked him in Barchester Towers as Mr Public Sentiment. It’s not an unfair charge, and Trollope’s novels are in many ways more satisfyingly human and grownup than Dickens’s. But it’s also true, I think, that Popular Sentiment is more complicated than Trollope wanted to acknowledge.
Of course Dickens’s satire tended toward softish (or what now seem like softish) targets, like the religious sanctimony of Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, the workhouses in Oliver Twist, the court of Chancery in Bleak House, and government bureaucracy of all stripes in Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office. Of course Dickens painted in broad strokes meant to appeal to some common denominator: there are jolly characters like the Cheeryble brothers, and sweet misses like Rose Maylie and Dora Spenlowe, and cartoonish beings like Sairey Gamp, and clear villains like Uriah Heep and Madame Defarge. Of course there are melodramatic tentacles in multiple plots, plucking at our attention. But up against these conventional narrative pleasures there’s the sheer weirdness of Dickens’s world: natural monsters like the dwarf Quilp; phantasmagoric chase scenes like Bill Sykes and his dog on the rooftops of the Isle of Dogs after his murder of Nancy; recurring jokes about cannibalism and wooden legs; and, offsetting the sweeties, women like the scarred Rosa Dartle, murderous Hortense, rigid Mrs. Clennam, endlessly loquacious Flora Finching, and ferocious Miss Wade with her influence over the resentful orphan Tattycoram. What popular sentiment do they tap into?
Voyeurism, perhaps? Dickens offers the irresistible entertainments of eavesdropping and people-watching alongside the equally tempting but awful compulsion to look at something when you know you ought to turn your head. Dickens never looked away, and through his unfiltered gaze we can allow ourselves to see people and places from which we might otherwise flinch. Many times, he noted in himself the “attraction of repulsion.” One instance was in his essay on his visit to the Paris Morgue. The place was a recognized tourist stop, listed in Baedeker, suggesting he was hardly alone in being fascinated—salaciously so, even—by the hapless, the fateful, the face of death. The power of “looking at something that cannot return a look”—that’s the night side of Dickens (in Harry Stone’s phrase) and it’s definitely one of the repulsive attractions of literature, too, that readers, however uncomfortably, might need to face up to.
It is well known that Dickens took long fast walks at night through London neighborhoods—urban, suburban, and rural, swanky and insalubrious. Is it an exaggeration to claim that he wasn’t so much imaginative as compulsively observant? The world Dickens saw was there for all to see. Take Miss Flite, in Bleak House. She’s the poor, flighty (natch) woman, somehow attached to the never-ending Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case, waiting for the “day of judgment” to come. She keeps pet birds: Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. The filigree here is a flight of Dickens’s fancy, but there was, in fact, in 1838 a real woman—“the unfortunate Miss R.”—haunting the law courts in Westminster Hall with “a delusion about her imaginary rights”:
Of course Dickens made things up, but it’s a great help when you’re the sort of person who notices that the world provides you I am quoting here not from Dickens but from Angela Thirkell’s novel Coronation Summer, a nicely researched romp about Victoria’s coronation in 1838 published in 1937, the year of George VI’s coronation. with names like Betty Peek. I find that after reading a Dickens novel, the world becomes Dickensian. However fugitively, the Miss Mowchers and Dick Swivellers and possibly even the Jos and Florence Dombeys of the world rise up around me.
Insofar as any biography of a writer can be said to be a permanent contribution, Slater’s is. The chapters on the composition and writing of the later novels are completely riveting. I feel it’s fair to say that his densely detailed book is focused toward scholarly permanence, inspiring trust more than raw enthusiasm. It’s well to remember we’re talking about a man whose last (written) words, as Northrop Frye noted, were “falls to with an appetite.” For my money Chesterton is still the best read on what makes Dickens work on us at the purely visceral level—which, for Dickens, goes a long way:
1 Charles Dickens, by Michael Slater; Yale University Press, 720 pages, $35.