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The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens: A Life (Waterstone’s Special Edition)

by Claire Tomalin, with an appendix of selected letters by Dickens
London: Viking, 542 pp., £30.00
Henri Claudet
Charles Dickens in 1850, when he was writing David Copperfield
The life of almost any man possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself.
—Charles Dickens, 1869

Is Dickens the greatest of English novelists? Few would contest that he is the most English of great English novelists, and that his most accomplished novels—Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend, and David Copperfield—are works of surpassing genius, thrumming with energy, imagination, and something resembling white-hot inspiration; his gift for portraiture is arguably as great as Shakespeare’s, and his versatility as a prose stylist is dazzling, as in this famous opening of Bleak House:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun….
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.

And equally characteristic of Dickens, a chapter opening in the lesser-regarded and uncompleted The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which a natural observation acquires a portentous metaphoric significance:

Whosoever has observed that sedate and clerical bird, the rook, may perhaps have noticed that when he wings his way homeward towards nightfall, in a sedate and clerical company, two rooks will suddenly detach themselves from the rest, will retrace their flight for some distance, and will there poise and linger; conveying to mere men the fancy that it is of some occult importance to the body politic, that this artful couple should pretend to have renounced connection with it.

Irresistibly the reader is drawn into the voice—exquisitely lyric, yet with a profound melancholy beneath—of the child Philip Pirrip—“Pip”—of Great Expectations:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Dickens is so brilliant a stylist, his vision of the world so idiosyncratic and yet so telling, that one might say that his subject is his unique rendering of his subject, in an echo of Mark Rothko’s statement, “The subject of the painting is the painting”—except of course, Dickens’s great subject was nothing so subjective or so exclusionary, but as much of the world as he could render. If Dickens’s prose fiction has “defects”—excesses of melodrama, sentimentality, contrived plots, and manufactured happy endings—these are the defects of his era, which for all his greatness Dickens had not the rebellious spirit to resist; he was at heart a crowd-pleaser, a theatrical entertainer, with no interest in subverting the conventions of the novel as his great successors D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf would have; nor did he contemplate the subtle and ironic counterminings of human relations in the way of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, who brought to the English novel an element of nuanced psychological realism not previously explored. Yet among English writers Dickens is, as he once called himself, part-jesting and part-serious, “the inimitable.”

Equipped with period maps of Gad’s Hill and Rochester (where Dickens lived as a young child, 1817–1822), Central London, and North London, an enormous cast of characters (relatives, friends, and acquaintances of Dickens spanning his lifetime), a generous gathering of photographs, and, in an appendix, a small selection of letters by Dickens, Claire Tomalin’s enormously ambitious biography of Charles Dickens begins in medias res in a dramatically rendered prologue titled “The Inimitable: 1840.” As in a Dickens novel, we are introduced to the twenty-seven-year-old householder as he takes his place on a jury convened by the Marylebone beadle to determine the probable guilt or innocence of a servant girl accused of infanticide.

The narrative is present-tense; the mood is suspenseful. We see the new young Marylebone resident Charles Dickens in his role as a responsible citizen, involving himself in the inquest with a hope of giving a “favourable turn to the case”: “Dickens resolves to take on those who are ready to find her guilty of killing her child, and…he argues against them, so firmly and forcefully that he wins the argument.” Not only does Dickens assure that the girl won’t be vulnerable to a sentence of death, but he hires a lawyer for her and makes arrangements for her to be treated humanely as she awaits her trial in prison.

In a narrative sleight of hand the biographer takes up Dickens’s story from the perspective of a letter of his to a friend, telling of the troubling episode and its effect upon him. Tomalin notes that, twenty-three years later, the memory of the servant girl charged with infanticide was still fresh to Dickens:

This is a very small episode in the life of Dickens, but it allows us to see him in action…. He is at his best as a man, determined in argument, generous in giving help,…motivated purely by his profound sense that it was wrong that [the accused] should be victimized further.

What is impressive about Dickens’s involvement in this case is that, in January 1840, as Tomalin shows, the young author was leading a highly public, intense, and complicated life. In the past four years he’d written three commercially successful long novels (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop) under the pressure of monthly installments; theatrical dramatizations were made of his work throughout England; “his success was unprecedented and thrilling”—but exhausting. Though he had no savings and lived from month to month, he’d already acquired a substantial household with a wife, young children, and family dependents as well as servants; he was an indefatigable giver of parties, an amateur actor, and compulsive walker—his “expeditions” were often as many as twenty miles out of town. Here is a man overcommitting himself to projects and responsibilities out of an insatiable interior restlessness that would leave him burned out and exhausted in his fifty-ninth year. Like Honoré de Balzac and Jack London, fellow obsessives and best-selling writers, Charles Dickens was a man of outsized energy, appetite, and ambition who, as Tomalin writes, “worked furiously fast to give himself free time.”

The “most mysterious figure in Dickens’s background”—in Tomalin’s words—is his father John Dickens, who was twenty-seven when Dickens was born. The son of servants of a “grand household,” John Dickens’s ambitions lay beyond such service; at a young age, he secured a position in the Navy Pay Office in London that would pay him “a fortune compared with anything his [butler] father had ever earned.” (Why was John Dickens so favored, and so careless with money through his life? Tomalin suggests that he may have been the illegitimate son of his father’s employer or one of his gentlemen friends.)

John owned a considerable library of “expensive” books, to which his son Charles would eventually be exposed; he was a “character”—“the model for his son’s most famous character, Micawber.” Through the decades Tomalin pursues the thread of John Dickens’s relationship with his son, who, as he ascends in fame, wealth, and influence, is yet burdened with his Micawber-father’s feckless behavior and his confidence that Charles would pay his debts. (As indeed Charles paid his father’s, his brother’s, and eventually his numerous sons’ debts, in exasperation, and repeatedly.1)

The great drama—which is to say, the abiding trauma—of Dickens’s childhood was his year-long stint in a rat-infested blacking factory near the Thames, when he was twelve years old, following the arrest of John Dickens for debt in 1824 and his incarceration in the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea. Much has been written about this long-secret episode in Dickens’s life, including, most recently, Michael Allen’s heavily documented Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory (2011), a work of some three hundred pages of interest primarily to Dickens scholars, but very likely impenetrable to Dickens readers in its concentration upon historical minutiae only tenuously related to Dickens and his novels. Another recent book, Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor (2012), gives a more intimately evoked view of Dickens’s childhood and the New Poor Law of 1834 by which workhouses became “a sort of prison system to punish (the poor).”

For the child Dickens, the shock of this change of fortune was all the more in that his seemingly loving parents so readily agreed to the enslavement of their bright young son:

No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.

At the factory—which manufactured blacking for men’s and boys’ boots—Dickens had a relatively light job, covering and labeling the pots of blacking; he was known there as “the young gentleman”; but the horror of his situation never altered:

No words can express the secret agony of my soul…the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position… My whole nature was penetrated with grief and humiliation.

His parents’ betrayal was unforgivable, and his year in the factory humiliating, yet twenty years later, recounting the episode to his first biographer, his beloved friend John Forster, Dickens acknowledged that the blacking factory had given him the determination to persevere, with “a sense that everything was possible to the will that would make it so.” And of course, servitude as a child worker would provide the author with both material and a sharply informed perspective as well as a natural empathy for the enslaved working poor of all ages, which remained with Dickens throughout his life.

Surprisingly, Dickens wasn’t an outstanding student at even the mediocre Wellington House Academy to which his parents eventually sent him; his formal education ended at fifteen, at which time he began to be a “serious smoker”—an addiction that would grip him through his life, and was very likely a factor in his premature death. His first employment was in a law office; his early interest in the law soon dissipated, as he began to write and to publish—initially, as an ecclesiastical reporter, then as reporter at the Morning Chronicle, where the blithely composed sketches of London scenes by “Boz” began to appear, and to attract a wide readership. Soon the energetic young writer was covering politics and elections for the newspaper, even as he was assembling Sketches by Boz (1836), and publishing The Pickwick Papers in monthly installments, which quickly became a best seller. He was soon to become involved with the theater and with performing as an amateur actor. He turned down several invitations to stand for Parliament.

By this time Dickens had fallen in love desperately, and been rejected, by an “enchantingly pretty” young woman named Maria Beadnell; he was eighteen, and Maria twenty; his intense romantic feeling for Maria wasn’t requited, and Dickens was, by his accounts at the time and many years later, devastated. The “wasted tenderness” of those hard years caused him suppress emotion, he said, “which I know is no part of my original nature, but which makes me chary of showing my affections, even to my children.” Maria Beadnell is immortalized in two portraits in Dickens’s fiction: as the pretty feather-headed Dora of David Copperfield (1850), who dies young; and as the fat, fatuous, garrulous, middle-aged Flora Finching of Little Dorrit (1857).

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    And yet Dickens’s fabled generosity could burn out, as in this startling outburst in a letter of 1870, the year of his death, regarding the debts of his son Sydney, which he was obliged to pay: “I fear Sydney is much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish that he were honestly dead.” 

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