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The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Despite the cruelty of his parents and his father’s chronic irresponsibility, like any Victorian Dickens seems to have conceived of family life as an ideal. Still besotted with Maria Beadnell, he quickly decided to marry Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his newspaper employer, within six months of meeting her in 1835, an impulsive decision that he came to regard as what Tomalin calls “the worst mistake” of his life. Though Dickens would impregnate Catherine more than ten times, resulting in a daunting number of children both loved and not-so-loved by their father, in a way that strikes the contemporary reader as outrageously and obtusely sexist Dickens seems to have blamed his wife for their numerous progeny, as if this plain, placid, passive woman had been a siren to tempt her husband into sexual intercourse against his will.

Casually and belatedly, after having sired ten children, Dickens remarked that he had not wanted “more than three children.” Not so casually, but also cruelly, in the final year of his life he would speak and write of his ill-suited marriage as a “skeleton in the closet.” Luckless Catherine—cast aside by her husband when, at the age of forty-six, he fell in love with the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan—was transformed in Dickens’s imagination into that most horrific of Victorian villainesses, the unmotherly mother:

She does not—and she never did—care for the children; and the children do not—and they never did—care for her… I want to forgive and forget her.

Yet Dickens never divorced Catherine, for divorce would have been a scandal for one of his presumed moral stature; pragmatically, if perhaps hypocritically, he lived with Nelly Ternan until his death, in quasi-secret locations, sometimes under the name “Charles Tringham.” But amid the myriad entanglements of his life Dickens never ceased writing—not only his fiction but his extraordinary letters, estimated to be beyond 14,0002—and, with ever-increasing compulsion in the last decade of his life, giving “paid readings” of his work to large, adoring audiences in both the UK and the United States.

The vicissitudes of Dickens’s visits to the United States are tracked in detail in Tomalin’s biography, suggesting a curious admixture of innocent authorly vanity, a shrewd desire to make as much money as possible, and what comes to seem to the reader a malignant, ever-metastasizing desire for self- destruction. Dickens’s delight in his large and uncritical audiences shifts by degrees to an addiction to public performing; like Mark Twain, he quickly came to see that public performance paid more than writing, and was much easier, at least in the short run. Dickens’s need for the immediate gratification of public performing is both tonic and masochistic; consumed by vanity, the celebrated writer is consuming his very self. In 1868 the exhausted author would write triumphantly in a letter to one of his daughters (included, along with twelve of his other greatest letters, in the appendix to the Waterstone’s special edition of Tomalin’s biography):

I not only read last Friday, when I was doubtful of being able to do so, but read as I never did before, and astonished the audience quite as much as myself. You never saw or heard such a scene of excitement.

One must not think that Dickens was reading “authentic” Dickens to these mass audiences. Instead, he prepared “scripts” showcasing his and his audience’s favorite characters—Micawber, Dora, Little Em’ly, Steerforth, Mrs. Gamp, Bill Sykes and his victim Nancy; half of the readings were from inferior Christmas stories, though A Christmas Carol was always a favorite. (Dickens read the lurid murder of Nancy by Sikes twenty-eight times between January 1869 and March 1870, “exciting and horrifying his audiences.”) In America, Henry James, possibly rebuked by the sheer size and volume of the rival novelist’s crowds, spoke of Dickens’s “hard charmless readings”; decades later Edmund Wilson summed up the phenomenon succinctly: “Dickens had a strain of the ham in him, and in the desperation of his later life, he gave in to the old ham and let him rip.”

When, in 1842, the much-acclaimed author of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841) went to America for the first time, though lionized by the gentry and swooned over by audiences—(“People eat him here,” an observer remarked)—he found America, on the whole, disappointing; and American publishers, who had been pirating his novels for years with impunity, intransigent on the matter of honoring international copyright.

Despite ecstatic receptions in Boston and New York City, Dickens was repelled by the slave state of Virginia, and thought the Mississippi River “the beastliest river in the world”; Ohio was a region of “invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive (individuals)…destitute of humor, vivacity, or the capacity of enjoyment.” He found here “follies, vices, grievous disappointments.” Nor was Toronto any improvement, for there “the wild and rabid toryism…is…appalling.” Unexpectedly, Dickens thought Cincinnati a “very beautiful” city”—unfortunately, populated by bores. Niagara Falls evoked rhapsodic emotions, perhaps predictably: “It would be hard for a man to stand nearer to God than he does there.”

But there was nothing romantic about the continued defiance of American publishers who took offense that the author should expect any recompense at all. America was “a low, coarse, and mean Nation…driven by a herd of rascals…. Pah! I never knew what it was to feel disgust and contempt, ’till I travelled in America.” (Tomalin notes that international copyright was not sorted out until 1891, long after his death.) Dickens’s American Notes appeared soon after the trip, a haphazard assemblage of sardonic observations and unmediated rancor—as Edgar Allan Poe called it, “one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by an author, who had the least reputation to lose.”

Yet Dickens persevered. Within the span of seventeen years, even as his personal life threatened to disintegrate, and public readings took up more and more of his time and energy, he would write his inimitable masterworks: Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), Our Mutual Friend (1865). His was a frantic and yet fecund energy. “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.”

Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Yet even its most exemplary practitioners are frequently left behind, like hunters on the trail of elusive prey, in the tracking of genius. Claire Tomalin’s biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of “the life” to “the art”—and what a perilous balancing act it is, in which, just barely, Dickens’s art isn’t lost amid a smothering welter of facts. “This may be more detail than one normally wants about anyone’s life,” Tomalin acknowledges. And indeed there is an inordinate amount of detail in this biography, particularly in regard to Dickens’s frantically busy social life, his scattered interests, and his grinding public career. (How many reading tours Dickens embarked upon before, finally, his “last farewell to the London reading public” in 1870! The reader begins to be as fatigued as Dickens.)

The problem with such assiduously recorded lives of great artists is that one is drawn to an interest in the artist’s life because of his or her accomplishments, primarily; the “life” in itself is of interest as it illuminates the work, but if the often banal details of the life detract from the work, the worth to the biography is questionable. Even an ordinary life, cataloged in every detail, will bloat to Brobdingnagian girth, distorting the human countenance. Only a very few encyclopedic biographers—Richard Ellman most illustriously, in his long yet never dull biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde in particular—transcend the weight of their material, and make of it an intellectual entertainment commensurate with its subject.

Admirable as it is, warmly sympathetic and often eloquent, Tomalin’s Charles Dickens frequently moves like a vehicle with concrete wheels set beside, for instance, the rapid, deft, conversational, and confiding short life Charles Dickens (2002) by the novelist Jane Smiley. There is nothing here resembling the flamboyant idiosyncrasies of the controversial thousand-page Dickens biography by Peter Ackroyd (1991), with its many risks and rewards, which must squat, like the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla, in the peripheral vision of subsequent Dickens biographers. (Tomalin can bring herself to refer to Ackroyd only once, as if dutifully: Ackroyd, alone of contemporary biographers, believes that the highly fraught relationship between Dickens and Ellen Ternan was never consummated.)

The most engaging writing in Tomalin’s biography is inspired by a critical appreciation of Dickens’s novels, as one might expect: Bleak House (“his imagination, always bold, now offers scenes as odd and inspired as Shakespeare’s”), David Copperfield (“a masterpiece built on Dickens’s ability to dig into his own experience, transform it and give it the power of myth”), Great Expectations (“a great book, delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious”), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (“the achievement of a man who is dying and refusing to die, who would not allow illness and failing powers to keep him from exerting his imagination, or to prevent him from writing: and as such it is an astonishing and heroic enterprise”). And Tomalin is very convincing in her discussion of the abiding secret of Dickens’s later life—his relationship with the ex-actress, Ellen Ternan, about whom, in 1990, Tomalin devoted a book aptly titled The Invisible Woman.

Dickens’s end comes with startling abruptness, on June 8, 1870, in his home in Gad’s Hill:

He sat down and [Georginia Hogarth] asked him if he felt ill and he replied, “Yes, very ill; I have been very ill for the last hour.” On her saying that she would send for a doctor, he said no, he would go on with the dinner, and go afterwards to London. He made an effort to struggle against the fit that was coming on him…. In every version she gave their final exchange, her “Come and lie down,” and his reply, “Yes, on the ground.”

“He left a trail like a meteor,” Tomlin says, “and everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens.” How Tomalin’s version will compare, with the passage of time, with such previous “definitive” biographies as those by Peter Ackroyd, Michael Slater (2009), and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (2011), all of which spring from John Forster’s renowned three-volume biography of Dickens (1872, 1873, 1874), is an open and intriguing question.

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    Drawn from the twelve-volume British Academy Pilgrim Edition of more than 14,000 letters of Dickens addressed to 2,500 known correspondents, the 450 included in The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Jenny Hartley (Oxford University Press, 2012), are more revealing and more intimate than any biography as a record, in the editor’s words, not so much of the “inner Dickens” as of “Dickens in motion.” 

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