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Who Was Charles Dickens?

Dickens

by Peter Ackroyd
HarperCollins, 1,195 pp. (1990)
gottlieb_1-061010.jpg
Tate Britain/National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles Dickens; painting by Daniel Maclise, 1839

There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again. I’ve never encountered a life of the Brontës, of Dr. Johnson, of Byron that didn’t grip me.

Another such character is Charles Dickens. His history, of course, is less obviously dramatic than that of Byron, but the turbulence of his emotional life, the violent contradictions in his nature, and the amazing story of his instant accession, before he was twenty-five, to the highest level of literary fame and popularity—where he remained for thirty-five years, and where he still resides—are endlessly recountable, and have indeed been endlessly recounted.

Dickens was born in 1812 and died in 1870, having produced fifteen novels, many of which can confidently be called great, as well as having accomplished outstanding work in activities into which his insatiable need to expend his vast energies—to achieve, to prevail—carried him: journalism, editing, acting, social reform.

He was almost certainly the best-known man in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most loved: his very personal hold on his readers extended from the most distinguished—Queen Victoria, say—to illiterate workers who clubbed together to buy the weekly or monthly parts in which his novels first appeared so that one marginally literate man could read them aloud to his fellows. And this popularity and influence carried to America, Germany, France, and Russia as well. There was universal sorrow when he died. “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning,” wrote Longfellow. “It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

Within months of Dickens’s death the first biographies were appearing, and in 1871 the first volume of the cornerstone of the Dickens biographical industry was published: the long, personal, revelatory Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster, Dickens’s most intimate and trusted friend since they met in their early twenties. Forster told the world much that it did not know, most startling the story of the twelve-year-old Charles’s degrading (to him) employment in the blacking warehouse off the Strand to which his family’s near destitution had condemned him. He adapted this experience for David Copperfield, but no one—not even his children—had known that it was autobiographical.

Dickens never really recovered from the searing despair he felt at this plunge from respectable lower-middle-class family life and decent schooling into semiabandonment, living on his own on sixpence a day in a shabby rented room, his father and family in debtors’ prison:

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age…. No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from any one that I can call to mind, so help me God.

Apart from everything else—the lonely, hungry days and nights and his despair at being blocked from further education and checked in his ardent ambitions—it was a matter of class in this most class-conscious of societies. Again and again throughout his life, the question would arise: Was Charles Dickens really a gentleman?

Forster also published in his book scores of private letters from Dickens that track his life and, to a certain extent—Dickens was always reserved—reveal his feelings. Despite Forster’s inflation of his own importance, his occasional editorial meddling, and his understandable caution about how much to tell, his Life, with its unique eyewitness perspective and shrewd take on Dickens’s nature, is a crucial document, essential to all the biographies that were to follow, including the latest: the large-scale, estimable Charles Dickens by Michael Slater, a leading and much-respected Dickens scholar.

The man Dickens whom the world at large thought it knew stood for all the Victorian virtues—probity, kindness, hard work, sympathy for the down-trodden, the sanctity of domestic life—even as his novels exposed the violence, hypocrisy, greed, and cruelty of the Victorian age. He was the defender of the poor and helpless, and the scourge of corrupt institutions—Parliament, the education establishment, the law. He was the unrivaled propagandist for Christmas. And he was before all else the greatest comic writer in the language—in any language. Perhaps the world’s view of him was an unconscious reflection of his first immortal creation, the benign, universally beloved Samuel Pickwick, Esq.

Yet his clever, fond daughter Katey would write to George Bernard Shaw:

If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.

In a sense, the history of Dickens biography has been an accelerating attempt to accomplish just that, although it’s hard to believe that Katey would have been gratified by the relentless probings into her father’s private history and inner life that have ensued.

First came a deluge of memoirs by those who knew him, including two slim hagiographic volumes by his other daughter, Mamie, and another by his one unquestionably successful son, Sir Henry (Harry) Fielding Dickens, an admired jurist. Biographies proliferated, including respectable if limited ones by André Maurois and Edward Wagenknecht. And there were many acute critical assessments by, among others, the singularly dissimilar George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton, plus a variety of public and private remarks by Shaw himself, who not only recognized that David Copperfield was a cheat as self-revelation—“Clennam [Little Dorrit] and Pip [Great Expectations] are the real autobiographies”—but in a letter to Katey pinned down the nature and scope of Dickens’s genius:

All I can tell you is that your father was neither a storyteller like Scott, nor a tittle-tattler like Thackeray: he was really a perplexed and amused observer like Shakespear.

The immense Dickens literature of the sixty or seventy years following his death was, then, largely personal in approach and tone, the product not only of people who had known him or had lived in his immediate wake, but of those like Gissing and Chesterton who wrote under the pressure—and anxiety—of his towering influence. A little later, he might be out of favor with “modern” writers like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, but there was no way they could ignore him. It was only by the close of the 1930s that serious critics and biographers were able to address his life and work disinterestedly. Edmund Wilson’s “The Two Scrooges” and George Orwell’s “Charles Dickens” are the two superb essays—both, oddly, published in 1940—that are the harbingers of the new Dickens criticism, to be followed by Lionel Trilling, V.S. Pritchett, Graham Greene, J.B. Priestley, and many other insightful commentators. And the scholarly work has never ceased. The journal The Dickensian, launched in 1905, is still flourishing.

As for postwar biography, it was in 1952 that Edgar Johnson published his two-volume Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, which was not only received by critics as the first definitive life but had a remarkable popular success as an atypical full selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Johnson’s book is still highly readable—capacious, sympathetic, fluent. Its one serious flaw—commented on by the otherwise admiring Slater and others of Johnson’s successors—is his bias toward Dickens in the crucial matter of his relationship with his wife, Catherine.

Dickens’s treatment of Catherine, we now have to acknowledge, is an inexcusable blot on his personal history and his character, as well as an indication of the powerful psychic derangement he was undergoing in mid-life. They had married young, after his anguished and fruitless courtship of the pretty, flirtatious Maria Beadnell, who led him on, then shooed him away, obviously not deeply smitten by this handsome, entertaining—and callow—boy who was making his way as a court reporter, but had no real prospects. It’s easy to see in retrospect that his feelings for her were calf love, but they were passionate, long-lasting, and led to intense humiliation. No doubt to salve his wounded feelings he quickly turned to Catherine Hogarth, from a family of some distinction—her father was the editor of The Evening Chronicle, a newspaper for which young Charles was now writing. Catherine was placid, admiring, and easily led, and his wooing of her was hardly fervent. What he was looking for, after the emotional upheavals of Maria, was a wife rather than a lover, a family of his own, and a settled establishment. His need to locate himself in middle-class domesticity was so strong that he simply allied himself with the first appropriate girl who came along.

In many ways, and for some years, it seems to have been a happy (and was certainly a comfortable) relationship. His letters to her are affectionate; she’s a stalwart helpmate on the fraught American tour of 1842, despite her severe distress at leaving her four little ones behind in England; and she’s liked by everyone, even if she doesn’t make a highly vivid impression. But by the time she was well along in her child-bearing years—seven boys and three girls, to say nothing of several miscarriages—she had grown overweight, nervous, and sickly. (Can we be surprised?)

As the family grew, Dickens—although he was charmed by and cherished his children when they were little—grew more and more beleaguered and vexed. (In his letters, it’s always Catherine who’s responsible for producing all these babies; apparently he had nothing to do with it.) Yet he’s in total charge of all decisions about them: their mother is not even involved in choosing their names. What can Catherine have thought when he gave the name Dora to a newborn daughter just five days after having written to her, “I have still Dora to kill—I mean the Copperfield Dora….” What can we think?

The sad truth is that the modestly intelligent and not very worldly Catherine couldn’t really share either his working life or his inner life, and as he became more and more of a world figure, he began to express his dissatisfaction in letters to Forster. His deepest unhappiness lay in his growing sense that he was missing out on the most important thing in life: a fulfilling relationship with a woman. By his early forties he had convinced himself that life with Catherine was unendurable, and that he had to be free of her. Divorce was not a possibility for him in mid-Victorian England, but as always he would not be thwarted, and he gave orders that his dressing room was to be sealed off from his and Catherine’s bedroom. He would, he informed Catherine, occasionally turn up in London from their house in the country and stay with her to demonstrate to the world that they were still a couple. But their life as man and wife was over.

Even passive Catherine could not accept this reprehensible arrangement, and with her angry family championing her (and infuriating Charles), the situation escalated until Dickens published in his magazine Household Words a self-serving and self-pitying statement about his dissolving marriage. (Thackeray, an admiring if wary friend, told his daughters that Dickens “is ½ mad about his domestic affairs, and tother ½ mad with arrogance and vanity.”)

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