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, 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, 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 …

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