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Who Was Charles Dickens?

Dickens

by Peter Ackroyd
HarperCollins, 1,195 pp. (1990)
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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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Charles Dickens Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library
Charles Dickens, circa 1862

Typically, as with all those with whom he quarreled—most fiercely, his serially battered publishers—Catherine had to be demonized in order for him to justify to himself his savage behavior to her. He bombards people with letters asserting that she was a neglectful mother and that her children couldn’t bear to be with her; he will have no personal dealings with her ever again; she will have access to the children, yes, but they are to live with him. Catherine is not permitted to attend the wedding either of Charley, their eldest son, or of Katey. She has become a nonperson, and anyone who takes her side is permanently banished from his life. As always, and in every aspect of his life, Dickens must be in complete, dominating control, uncriticized and unquestioned, while consistently maintaining his keen sense of injured merit. What life was like in the Dickens household at this time is summed up by Katey: “Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”

Dickens’s history with Catherine is only one of the relationships with women that define his private history and his emotional trajectory. And indeed, in an earlier book, Dickens and Women (1983), Michael Slater brilliantly anatomized these relationships, providing us with one of the most perceptive takes we have on Dickens’s psychology and pathology—not too strong a word.

Unsurprisingly, the first dysfunctional connection is with his mother, toward whom he felt a violent and lifelong resentment. Her crime was that when the family’s improved circumstances led to the twelve- or thirteen-year-old Charles being rescued from the blacking factory, the practical Elizabeth wanted him to return there in order to help shore up the family’s still-precarious finances. Charles never forgot and he never forgave. The central character of the clearly self-referential The Haunted Man (1848), the last of his wildly successful Christmas books, puts it succinctly: “I was easily an alien from my mother’s heart.”

And yet Elizabeth was not only an intelligent, lively, and appealing woman, but she was in various ways instrumental in Charles’s development and success. Nor had she abandoned him as fully as he would have liked others (and himself) to believe. But she, too, had to be demonized, and Dickens allowed the world to believe that his Mrs. Nickleby, that ridiculously garrulous and foolish mother, was based on her.

Elizabeth Dickens, however, was neither ridiculous nor foolish—indeed, again and again she proved herself the realistic member of the Dickens household. Fred Kaplan in his Dickens, the most psychologically penetrating of the biographies, convincingly suggests that Dickens’s reduction of Elizabeth to the “vain, ineffectual, verbally comic Mrs. Nickleby” represents a “fictional neutralization of the pain in his relationship with his own mother.” (Just as, we might add, the good-natured, generous, but irresponsible John Dickens, whose financial demands and irregularities would drive his grown son to fury, is neutralized in the character of Mr. Micawber.) All the abandoned or rejected children in Dickens’s fiction—from Oliver Twist to Little Nell to Florence Dombey to David Copperfield to Bleak House‘s Jo to Great Expectations‘s Pip and Estella—are clearly central to his sense of himself. Their parents—either dead or destructively narcissistic—are unrelenting projections of his own emotional architecture.

On the other hand, the equally omnipresent innocent, loving daughters and sisters, and the barely distinguishable girls who are the love objects in, say, Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, are lifeless fantasies. Their chief prototype is easily identified. Soon after Charles and Catherine married and moved into their own establishment, Catherine’s next-oldest sister, Mary, came to visit, and eventually to stay. She was a help in the house, a help with the babies, and—more important—an idealized figure of virginal young womanhood.

One night in 1837, coming home from the theater, Mary went up to bed in perfect health and high spirits, and two hours later was dying of an unsuspected heart condition. The following afternoon the seventeen-year-old girl died in Dickens’s arms—her death the most severe trauma of his adult life. (It’s both moving and disturbing to stand today in the bedroom in which Mary died, now part of the Charles Dickens Museum.) For the first and only time in his career he ceased writing—the serialization of both Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist came to a halt. He preserved Mary’s clothes, wore her ring for the rest of his life, insisted that he be buried next to her. He dreamed of her night after night until—“interestingly,” Slater comments—he mentioned these dreams to Catherine and they immediately stopped.

In his two books Slater shows Mary to have been especially bright and charming, but to Dickens she was far more than that. Her idealized figure is projected into much of his fiction, beginning with Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, and her death prefigures the most famous of all Dickens’s death scenes, that of Little Nell. (When he was writing it, he told Forster, he summoned up Mary to maintain his heightened emotions.) What Peter Ackroyd in his Dickens calls “this strange concatenation of infatuation, obsession and disavowal of sexuality” was to haunt his entire life as well as his fictions.

After Charles and Catherine returned from their American tour in 1842, they brought into their household the next-youngest of the Hogarth girls, Georgina—she was fifteen—who would in time become the mainstay of the family, partially assuming, even before the breakdown of the marriage, Catherine’s responsibilities as housekeeper, hostess, and mother. She was utterly reliable, capable, selfless, and intelligent—in many ways a replacement not only for Catherine but for Mary. At last Dickens had found the ideal sister of his fantasies (neither of his own sisters fit the bill).

By the late 1850s, when rumors about him and a young actress were spreading, even nastier rumors were cropping up about his relationship with Georgina; he went so far as to have her examined by doctors who testified that she was virgo intacta. Georgina lived until 1917, a venerable and venerated figure in the Dickens world, presiding over and—in Claire Tomalin’s words, in The Invisible Woman—controlling his image “with a quasi-religious zeal and tenacity.” She remained close always to her two nieces, Katey and Mamie—as well as, perhaps surprisingly, being on excellent terms with Dickens’s young actress, Ellen Ternan.

It is Ternan who was the most passionately loved—and remains the least known—of Dickens’s women. She was eighteen when he first encountered her, the youngest of three sisters, all of whom—like their quite successful mother—were on the stage, and all of whom were raised as ladies. Ternan was beautiful, clever, interesting, and from 1857, when they met, she was his…what? The question of the nature of their relationship is the most disputed aspect of Dickens’s personal history.

It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the Ternan story fully surfaced. It was soon accepted that for the thirteen years before his death, the relationship between them was intimate, that Dickens set Ellen up in a series of homes around London and probably in France, that he was her entire support (she quickly gave up the stage). There is still confusion and dispute, however, about whether and when the relationship became a sexual one. Edgar Johnson believed it did, but said so in an exaggeratedly guarded and qualified a way. After a long siege of her virtue, Johnson writes, “it seems not unlikely that…Ellen’s obduracy had at last given way,” and goes on to say,

There is reason for believing that Dickens had won Ellen against her will, wearing down her resistance by sheer force of desperate determination, and that her conscience never ceased to reproach her.

In later years, apparently, she confided the story to a clergyman. “‘I had it,’ said Canon Benham, ‘from her own lips, that she loathed the very thought of the intimacy.’” By then, though, she was an elderly and highly respectable widow.

Fred Kaplan argues cogently that

Having had sexual relations for much of his adult life, [Dickens] was not likely to renounce them voluntarily when he found himself deeply in love with an attractive young woman. He had no ascetic impulse. He detested prudishness. His concerns were of this world, and his long-held values and personality affirmed the naturalness of sexual union between lovers.

As for Ellen, “there is no reason to doubt that she loved him and committed herself to their relationship.”

Yet Peter Ackroyd is insistent in his belief that the relationship never became sexual:

All the engagement of his nature, all the idealism and veneration, were elicited only by the innocent young girl or young woman; and, since this is the tone that Dickens always adopted towards Ellen Ternan, it seems almost inconceivable that theirs was in any sense a “consummated” affair.

The acute and persuasive Ackroyd may have intuited something that other biographers have missed, but this passage and others like it have the ring of a novelist’s rather than a biographer’s mind at work, and, in fact, he goes out of his way to remind us more than once that he is indeed a novelist.

Ackroyd has an extraordinary grasp of both the details and the context of Dickens’s life, and his Dickens is a masterly performance that would appear to be definitive except for some of his truly odd methods—for one, his aggressive refusal to provide sources. The most egregious—in fact, bizarre—of these quirks are his interpolations into the narrative of at least half a dozen little sketches or dialogues of his own, in one of which, for example, a conversation takes place among Dickens, Chatterton, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot. (Dickens: “Have you considered the artist as the proclaimer of truths? Of truth? Let us take the Four Quartets—“) You begin to feel sorry for Ackroyd, chained to the obligations of biography when he so badly wants to be the “creative” one.

Tomalin, in her widely praised biography of Ternan, is circumspect about Ellen’s relationship with Dickens. She weighs the evidence—including the persistent rumors of a pregnancy that resulted in a baby who soon died—and arrives at no conclusive verdict while sympathizing both with the torn and suffering Dickens, breaking down in tears during a performance in Paris of Gounod’s new opera Faust at the scene in which Mephistopheles tempts Marguerite with jewels, and with sensitive and proud Ellen, hidden away for more than a dozen years except from her family circle and a few of Dickens’s closest connections.

On this subject Slater is as always judicious and disinterested. He doesn’t consider the “Did they, didn’t they” issue mere gossip; obviously what happened with Ellen was central to Dickens’s life—but it isn’t central to his book.

To focus, as I have done, on Dickens and women, and on the turmoil of his inner life, is only one possible way of considering both him and his biographers. There are, needless to say, many other ways to approach this extraordinarily complex man and his astonishingly full life, which often seems to be a desperate struggle to find wholesome outlets for his limitless energy: the twenty- and thirty-mile walks he undertook almost daily; the famous amateur theatricals that began with annual birthday parties for Charley and grew into elaborate stagings for private and public occasions (he organized and oversaw everything, as well as being the star performer—after all, he had almost become an actor instead of a writer); the countless speeches he made for countless causes; the restless travel around both Britain and the Continent; the almost obsessive way he rebuilt and redecorated his residences—a perfectionist in this as in everything else; the constant entertaining; the years of dedicated service to the charities he assisted his immensely wealthy friend Angela Burdett Coutts in deploying—most conspicuously, the founding and micromanagement of her home for prostitutes hoping for a better life (in gratitude, she paid for Charley’s education at Eton); the flood of correspondence; the devoted attention to his children when they were little and the—mostly futile and frequently misguided—efforts to prepare them for adulthood; the complicated, sometimes frantic maneuvers involved in sustaining Ellen Ternan and warding off scandal; the public reader-aloud of his own work who literally drove himself to death with his compulsive and highly remunerative performances, climaxed by the wrenching, terrifying dramatization of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes.

And then there was his genius as the editor of his two hugely successful magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round. His editorship was not in name only: he was in charge of everything, corresponding furiously with his writers (trying to get Elizabeth Gaskell to make important changes, besieging George Eliot for serial rights to a novel), improving the prose of less accomplished writers (often rewriting it), planning every aspect of every issue, making every decision. Editing was for him a full-time second career. And of course there was his own writing for the magazines—not only those novels that were serialized and a stream of novellas and stories, but sketches, editorials, travel notes, reviews, reprinted speeches; at times, he came close to writing complete issues.

It is this last and least understood aspect of his professional life to which Michael Slater makes the most original contribution: his command of Dickens’s occasional writings and of his work as an editor seems complete. Which is not to imply that his overall narrative is ever less than large-minded and fluently composed. He is a scholar, but he has not written an academic book.

Does he bring to life the suffering child, the precocious young man who charmed everyone and vivified every occasion, the dandy, the disappointed husband and father, the warm friend, the bitter and implacable enemy, the ardent reformer who lacked a political philosophy and the true believer who had no personal religion, and all the other Dickenses? Does he grasp the genius of the work and convey it to us? To a large extent, yes. The most important issue, however, is whether he can be said to “understand” Dickens. But this is an unrealistic and unfair question. Who could?

During Dickens’s second American tour, in 1867, Emerson remarked of him to Annie Fields, the wife of his American publisher:

You see him quite wrong, evidently, and would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them. He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left. He daunts me! I have not the key.

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