Dickens: A Life
by Norman MacKenzie, by Jeanne MacKenzie
Oxford University Press, 434 pp., $16.95
After their books on the Fabians and on Wells, the indefatigable MacKenzies have turned to a fast-moving Life of Dickens. The stress is on the character as it was formed and the life as it was lived. More succinctly than most of those who deal in Dickens criticism, they are shrewd judges of the novels as they poured out: their book runs to 400 pages whereas the spacious standard lives by John Forster and Edgar Johnson are, of course, more than twice as long—although a shorter Johnson from which long passages of criticism were cut did appear about two years ago. To these indispensable authorities the MacKenzies make their bow, but they have been impelled by the irresistible Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters, now running to four volumes and rich in annotation. These letters—so close to the lively detail of Dickens’s daily life—have enabled them to fill in the faces and habits of the crowd of friends, actors, journalists, novelists, philanthropists, thinkers, and politicians among whom the gregarious Dickens lived.
Other novelists have been ruined by sociability; Dickens’s genius was excited by it. Like Balzac, like his century, he was Energy in person: his household was a crowd, his children were a crowd, his passion for acting drew in another crowd; clubs, cronies, parties, his houses and hotels in France and Italy, were a crowd. He was surrounded by aides and servants. His mind as he turned out his immense novels was a crowd, populated by England itself. He dined and wined exuberantly; he had energy left over for feats of walking—forty miles was nothing to him; and at night there were his famous solitary night walks in which he listened to the voices of the streets of London, Paris, Italy, America.
No other English writer has so completely identified himself with a dramatic time and a vast audience. Again like Balzac, he worked as hard as he played: he was a Phenomenon who lived to exhaust himself every day; at the end of his tether he could rely on demonic powers of almost instant recovery. He was alive only when he was on the move.
The opening sentence of the MacKenzies’ book—”The Dickens family were always on the move”—refers to the downhill career of the Micawber-like father which the young Dickens was, for his part, to turn into an uphill rush—and it indicates that the MacKenzies will see to it that they keep up with him. They are saturated Dickensians, and not of the sentimental or sycophantic kind. They are fully aware of the sociology and history of the industrial revolution and of Dickens’s ambivalent attitudes toward poverty, philanthropy, the Law, and wealth. They have a quite remarkable power of assimilating information and bringing it to life and a firm grasp of Dickens’s situation as it changes. If they are fascinated by the idea of the plain record, their writing refreshes the facts. One can imagine a …