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Best and Worst

Dickens: A Biography

by Fred Kaplan
Morrow, 607 pp., $24.95

So various is Dickens, so contradictory and disconcerting, that it is natural for anyone writing about him to seek a clue to his complex genius, something for ourselves and the critic to hold on to. G.K. Chesterton, in what is still one of the best introductions to the Dickens world, stressed the immense joviality—the bacon in the rafter and the wine in the wood—a Pickwick feast of snowballs and plum puddings. Humphry House, more sober and social-minded, wrote a book with the title of The Dickens World,1 which has lasted well, and which stresses Dickens’s extraordinarily multiform relation, as personality and author, with virtually every reform and aspiration of the time, with the problems of Victorian London and the woes of industrialized England.

The more recent tendency is to emphasize Dickens’s subjective side, to plunge him back into the maelstrom of oddity in which he reveled, the Freudian nightmare of purity and corruption, fascination and horror. In a very penetrating little book, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination,2 John Carey dwelt on Dickens’s obsession with dolls and wax-works, with young girls as sugar models and the elderly as limp puppets or gesticulating masks. Who but Dickens, he asked, could make us laugh at the idea of dead babies while almost simultaneously reaching for our handkerchiefs when one of his little dears—Jo the sweeper or Paul Dombey—is about to expire? Oscar Wilde in a sense summed the matter up when he remarked that one needed a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.

Admirably comprehensive, balanced and informative, and showing an encyclopedic knowledge of minor Victorian writers and journalists and hostesses long forgotten, Fred Kaplan’s new book goes a long way to redress the balance and give us a Dickens who demands all-around attention rather than present a single elemental clue to the source of genius. But even Professor Kaplan cannot resist dwelling on one leitmotif, and it is a decidedly spooky one. When in early 1857 Dickens produced The Frozen Deep with Wilkie Collins, himself taking the leading role, part of the melodrama’s huge success was due to public interest in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the Arctic ice in quest of the Northwest Passage. Not only were the explorers never seen again but it was rumored they had been forced to practice cannibalism.

Dickens was fascinated and went into the evidence in his magazine Household Words, giving a sensible verdict of “not proven” but remaining absorbed by the idea itself. It certainly connects with much that fueled his creative imagination, and not only in The Frozen Deep, which had been inspired by the Franklin tragedy. Not only is eating itself of huge importance in the Dickens world, where “there was never such a mutton chop,” such a barrel of oysters, such a steak and onions, but in a broad sense all his characters are engaged in eating each other, or being eaten. Sexuality itself is seen as a process of ingestion, and so sometimes is murder. The terrifyingly vital little Daniel Quilp, in The Old Curiosity Shop, is ready to eat his wife anew every day, and of course regards Little Nell herself as a particularly desirable morsel. In his last unfinished novel, Dickens’s young Edwin Drood might well have disappeared because the mysterious villain John Jasper, who lives in two worlds, has had him consumed in some abominable eastern rite. Jasper certainly wishes to devour, in a more socially acceptable sense, the heroine, Rosa Bud. “I could eat you” is the unspoken wish of Dickens’s liveliest characters. Even a Dickensian cat has to be removed from a room where a corpse is laid out in case…we know what, though Dickens of course does not tell us.

Indeed Professor Kaplan is right to recognize that Dickens nowhere else mentions cannibalism specifically. He does not have to; and I feel that Kaplan might have made even more of this insight if he had wanted, for he does not refer it specifically to the energies and spirit of the novels. His purposes are not critical, although his detailed commentary suggests on the way, as in this instance, more illuminating ideas than occur in most critical studies of Dickens’s work. Understanding of the Dickens phenomenon is probably best served, in any case, not by theories about him but by facts—all the swarming lot of them. There is something unreal now about the pronouncements on the novels by those two formidable critical lawgivers of Cambridge, England, Dr. and Mrs. Leavis, who spent years decreeing what could be “saved” in the novels and what could not. Leavis himself originally gave out the bizarre instruction that Hard Times, with its satiric parable on utilitarianism, was the only novel of Dickens that deserved serious study by grown-up people. Attitudes have changed a good deal since then, and Dickens’s reputation as an artist, once even more in the doldrums than those of his fellow Victorians, has continued to rise to almost Shakespearean heights.

Naturally enough Kaplan has no new or sensational material about Dickens’s secret life, or his affair in middle age with the actress Ellen Ternan, but he shows a matter-of-fact interest and sympathy, that of a modern man well accustomed to such matters, which is itself a good corrective to those previous biographers who were more eager to speculate, praise, or condemn. The surprising thing is that Dickens did not have many more affairs: his energy and frenetic sexual imagination might seem to have required them. But Dickens lived in an age when there was no shame, as it were, in keeping sex in the head rather than laying upon it the duty—and especially where such a celebrity was concerned—of ceremonially frequent physical expression. Very likely he was not highly sexed or promiscuous by nature, although he may have had adventures that we know nothing of.

Certainly his great friend Wilkie Collins did: he was a gentle, self-effacing man who kept two mistresses and families on a regular basis, as well as other unspecified commitments. But Collins never married, whereas something in Dickens required to be plunged into the bosom of blameless domesticity as if into a hot bath or a feather bed, from which he would periodically rush out in revulsion against family life in all its aspects. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The famous beginning of A Tale of Two Cities sums up much of Dickens’s own mental and physical existence, which, like that of his last and most haunting hero-villain figure, John Jasper, alternated between light and dark, grim secrecy and ebullient openness. He could be astonishingly cruel to his family, particularly to his wife, Catherine, for whose cloying affectionate simplicity he came to feel a cold detestation. It was easy to reverse the memory of her sister Mary, the sweet sixteen-year-old who had died in his arms not long after his marriage; or to be chums with Catherine’s other and more vivaciously practical sister, Georgina, who virtually ran the household for many years.

A misplaced and mismarried man,” Dickens wrote about himself in his notebook. Rightly I think, Kaplan refers the prison of his marriage, as he came to conceive it, to his early relations with his mother, that fecklessly endearing and much enduring woman who had danced on the night he was born, and who had shown no sympathy with and little awareness of the nightmare life he suffered when he was put to work at the age of fourteen in the notorious blacking factory. Kaplan does not overdo the Freudian angle, but Dickens is certainly a treasure-house for Freudian interpretation—almost too obviously. Part of Dickens’s universal appeal must come not so much from the extraordinary characters he dreamed up as from his essentially “comic strip” private imagination: the world of giants, demons, ogres, and beautiful princesses that had such a rapturous fascination for him in shows and pantomimes when he was young and for which he found counterparts in Victorian life. In a sense his inner world never changed. In 1858, at the age of forty-six, he was telling his friend Macready of dreams in which he acted the part of the fantasy hero, striving to recapture from her enemies “the Princess whom I adore…nothing would suit me half so well…as climbing after her sword in hand, and either winning her or being killed.”

As Kaplan dryly remarks, “that the princess was Ellen Ternan mattered less than that he needed a princess.” Dickens had no desire for a contented old age, and he felt that to die rescuing her would make him happy. He needed happiness, or rather the sheerness of joy, in order to be able to write, and his naive definition of happiness to himself was the absence of his mother-wife and the promise of his princess-mistress. Human, all too human, as Nietzsche might have said, and certainly all too familiar. That the Dickens who indulged in these fantasies was also the Dickens whose brilliantly intuitive intelligence and perceptive humor could analyze the consciousness of David Copperfield, or of Pip in Great Expectations, is much more remarkable, is indeed the miracle involved in his genius. He could be remorselessly intelligent, as well as sympathetic, about his characters—their needs, their destiny, their conditioning—but he disdained to extend the same insight to his own problems, or the same kind of sympathy. Had he done so he might have lost his creative spirit, lapsed into the introversion of the Coleridgean sage. He had to keep going, and the only way to do that was to invent and write, and to act out in recitals and dramatic shows the parts once adored in juvenile fancy.

Of course it was tough on others. What must poor Kate have thought when he rose from the marital couch at 2:00 A.M. and walked all the way from Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury to their place on Gads Hill in Kent—“over 30 miles through the dead night. I had been very much put-out; and I thought, ‘After all, it would be better to be up and doing something, than lying here.’ So I got up and did that.” He also worked on a Christmas number for Household Words, which he planned with great care and entitled “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners.” These perils took place in China and India, both dangerous places for the English invaders in the mid-nineteenth century, and at the center of the story was a dramatized version of himself as Saint George, rescuing a fair-haired maiden, Lady Maryon, whose hand the hero cannot aspire to since she is well above his social station. He is happy to serve her for no reward.

Both in his life and in his novels Thomas Hardy also indulged in romantic aspirations about aristocratic girls. It must have been a common Victorian fantasy, and in Tess of the D’Urbervilles Hardy has things ingeniously both ways by making his heroine a peasant girl of aristocratic origins and demeanor. Dickens did the same with a real-life Ellen Ternan, putting her on a pedestal as a princess while at the same time aiding her career as a struggling chorus girl (her stage parts were hardly more exalted than that) and setting her up in a secret little establishment of her own. His circle of intimate friends clearly knew all about it but remained silent and loyal. His elder sons came to know too. It was, after all, a familiar middle-class situation of the time, though in the case of such a celebrity as Dickens it had to be kept a close secret.

Kaplan wisely makes no pretense of succeeding where so many others have failed in penetrating the mysteries of “the great Detective,” but it seems possible that the couple had a child whose paternity remained unknown, perhaps even to himself. It seems more likely than the now discredited story that Hardy had one too. Dickens and Ellen traveled about a good deal—he once thought of taking her to America—and on a return from Paris, in 1864, accompanied by her mother, both were involved in what became known as the great Staplehurst Railway Disaster, with ten passengers killed. Suddenly transported from fantasies of peril and rescue into the real thing, Dickens behaved with great courage and resource, carrying brandy to the wounded and dying and calling the distracted guards to order by saying sharply: “Do you know me?” “We know you very well, Mr. Dickens,” they meekly replied. Ellen herself was hurt, though not seriously, and Dickens’s own health was so shaken that he never really recovered in the six years that remained to him.

His rhetorical order to the railwaymen, a question very definitely expecting the answer “Yes,” shows the extent to which he had become not only a public figure, but one whose authority he himself felt to be unquestionable. A year or so after the railway incident a deputation of London’s Jewish citizens waited on him to complain about the famous portrait of Fagin, the Jewish crook who runs the thieves’ kitchen for young criminals in Oliver Twist. Dickens promised like royalty to put the matter right, and inserted the good Jew Riah into Our Mutual Friend, which he was working on at the time. Riah is not only virtuous and beneficent but the reluctant instrument of an odious and dishonest young Gentile and financial yuppy, “Fascination” Fledgeby.

As a character, however, Riah is hardly a success, and one feels that what he is, and is intended to be, might well be a source of greater irritation to Jewish readers than is the memorably nightmarish early portrait of Fagin. Fagin, like Shylock, is a victim, despite his villainy, and the account of him in prison before his execution is one of the most powerful things in the novels. But, as Chesterton remarked, it pleased Dickens “to be taken for a judge in Israel,” and to compensate graciously for what might seem an injustice. What no one seems to have noticed is that the name Fagin was taken from that of the uncouth but kindly boy who befriended Dickens in the blacking factory: a remarkable instance of the ruthless way in which he exorcised his most painful memories by transferring them to his picture of the juvenile gang in Oliver Twist.

He was not such a lawgiver at the time of his American visit in 1842, but it seems likely that he irritated a good many Americans by airing his views, just as he did when he came to portray the young country in Martin Chuzzlewit. James Fields, the Boston publisher, found him “the Emperor of Cheerfulness on a cruise of pleasure,” and, as Kaplan says, “though he came as a private traveler, he could not resist stepping onto the public platform that his American hosts assumed was his natural place.” Painful misunderstanding was bound to occur, for there was no room in America for the secret, reticent, and private side of Dickens, nor did he make himself popular by saying what he thought about slavery and the need for international copyright. Dickens could be both fearless and tactless, but there was something admirable about his determination to speak out, as when he scornfully rejected the stories that most slaves were in fact well treated, just as he had belabored back in England the economists who had advocated humane child employment in factories, or properly organized prostitution.

Like every great entertainer he sacrificed his health to his public without a thought. His friend and biographer Forster besought him not to go on with the recitals that were killing him, and which toward the end of his life he came much to prefer to writing new novels. The novels for him achieved their true reality—“so real are my fictions to myself”—on the boards, and he needed the ecstatic crowds. He was delighted when rows of girls were dragged out from his Sikes and Nancy performance in dead faints. He also needed the money, but of the two the applause was more vital to him. The secret side that had originally produced the London horrors, the grim fears so marked even in the apprentice Sketches by Boz, and in the interior fantasy of Quilp or Mrs. Gamp, could be driven further into the darkness by more and more spectacular public success.

Kaplan is particularly good—it is one of the strengths of his biography—on the shape and perspective of Dickens’s career, his relation with his younger siblings, all of whom he outlived, and with his own children and their developing private lives. To be fully understood as a writer he needs to be put in this sort of family frame. But it is as a writer that he remains most vivid to us here, unforgettable, describing himself as

prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out of window, tearing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up, going out, coming in, a Monster to my family, a dread phenomenon to myself.

His most remarkable summing up of his own sense of himself was “a wild beast in a caravan, describing himself in his keeper’s absence.” Fortunately the keeper was absent pretty frequently. Like so much else in his frenetic existence, being a literary genius was for Dickens both the best of fates, and the worst of them.

  1. 1

    Richard West, 1950; Oxford University Press paperback, 1960.

  2. 2

    Faber and Faber, 1979.

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