After their books on the Fabians and on Wells, the indefatigable MacKenzies have turned to a fast-moving Life of Dickens. The stress is on the character as it was formed and the life as it was lived. More succinctly than most of those who deal in Dickens criticism, they are shrewd judges of the novels as they poured out: their book runs to 400 pages whereas the spacious standard lives by John Forster and Edgar Johnson are, of course, more than twice as long—although a shorter Johnson from which long passages of criticism were cut did appear about two years ago. To these indispensable authorities the MacKenzies make their bow, but they have been impelled by the irresistible Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters, now running to four volumes and rich in annotation. These letters—so close to the lively detail of Dickens’s daily life—have enabled them to fill in the faces and habits of the crowd of friends, actors, journalists, novelists, philanthropists, thinkers, and politicians among whom the gregarious Dickens lived.

Other novelists have been ruined by sociability; Dickens’s genius was excited by it. Like Balzac, like his century, he was Energy in person: his household was a crowd, his children were a crowd, his passion for acting drew in another crowd; clubs, cronies, parties, his houses and hotels in France and Italy, were a crowd. He was surrounded by aides and servants. His mind as he turned out his immense novels was a crowd, populated by England itself. He dined and wined exuberantly; he had energy left over for feats of walking—forty miles was nothing to him; and at night there were his famous solitary night walks in which he listened to the voices of the streets of London, Paris, Italy, America.

No other English writer has so completely identified himself with a dramatic time and a vast audience. Again like Balzac, he worked as hard as he played: he was a Phenomenon who lived to exhaust himself every day; at the end of his tether he could rely on demonic powers of almost instant recovery. He was alive only when he was on the move.

The opening sentence of the MacKenzies’ book—“The Dickens family were always on the move”—refers to the downhill career of the Micawber-like father which the young Dickens was, for his part, to turn into an uphill rush—and it indicates that the MacKenzies will see to it that they keep up with him. They are saturated Dickensians, and not of the sentimental or sycophantic kind. They are fully aware of the sociology and history of the industrial revolution and of Dickens’s ambivalent attitudes toward poverty, philanthropy, the Law, and wealth. They have a quite remarkable power of assimilating information and bringing it to life and a firm grasp of Dickens’s situation as it changes. If they are fascinated by the idea of the plain record, their writing refreshes the facts. One can imagine a more arresting or orchestrated book but none more reliably explicit, and they argue with effect. They are not lured into Marxist or Freudian explanations.

Enough is known about Dickens’s life for us to detect whence his inner preoccupations with innocence and violent crime, with the double self of the later years, have sprung. It is important, as they say, to see Dickens as a natural actor; good or bad he is always histrionic. That he sadistically relished acting the murder of Nancy, increasing its horror at the famous readings, so that he himself was almost on the point of collapse, is an aspect of the professional who seeks to sway an audience: the Victorian public was itself histrionic, privately and publicly. It was as declamatory as a Parliament of speechifying birds. Ground down by the new work ethic, they escaped into fantasy by second nature. They were hungry for both a violently melodramatic and fairy-tale morality at the same time, and the mass of Dickens’s readers found no difficulty in accommodating their hypocrisies to domestic piety.

For the MacKenzies—and I think they are right—Dickens’s essential genius is that of the solitary and outsider. As an item of social history, he was the grandson of upper servants in a great country house, who had acquired the upstairs tastes and manners. The disaster of the blacking factory and the experience of Marshalsea prison marked the young Dickens for life, for by these the little gentleman of “singular ability” went over the precipice for a few years into the hungry misery and the poverty of the London poor—the hopeless poor people like the Spitalfields weavers who were the victims of the industrial revolution, price-cutting, and the ruthless politics of laissez-faire. As a self-pitying child he declared he had sunk without the counsels of a father who was a dilapidated day-dreamer—not strictly true: his father did eventually play a part in getting him into journalism of the penny-a-line kind—and a mother who was feckless and indifferent. He never forgave her for sending his talented sister to a musical academy while he was put out to work without education. Balzac also, one recalls, never forgave his mother.


The clever egotist was born, and was fixed for good: Dickens would remain at the emotional age of ten, the most precocious age for boys, and would really never pass through the painfully maturing experience of adolescence—though he may have reached it very late in life. The failure to understand adult emotion, the desire to live by his gifts of fantasy, was the price. He felt himself to be an outcast, as Oliver Twist was; he needed food. Nicholas Nickleby is an outcast, as Dickens felt himself to be, from education; in David Copperfield he is burdened affectionately with his father as Micawber; in Great Expectations, Pip becomes the tormented prig and snob—as Chesterton, who wrote the best book on Dickens in English, perceived. In dealing with the lived life, the ten-year-old man could conceive only of two kinds of women: the silly, virginal, pretty child-wife, or the sister-friend—Agnes in fiction, Georgina Hogarth after his marriage to the lethargic Kate, who could not keep up with him and drove him to wry sarcasm by her pregnancies, as if he had no responsibility for them! He loved his children when they were young, was exasperated by them as they grew up.

In a general judgment, the MacKenzies write:

This adult will to forgiveness was not sufficient to dispose of the deeply ingrained childish feelings of self-pity and injustice, nor of the fantasies of revenge which lay behind them…. To make human kindness prevail, when innocence was so weak and villainy so powerful, he had to resort to such tricks as changes of heart, quirks of fate, and the avuncular figures, uncorrupted despite their wealth, who cast a glow of goodwill and gold over so many of his closing pages…. Something like the transformation scene at the end of a pantomime was always needed to get the clowns and devils off the stage and to bring on the final tableau of familial bliss….

The world he described was a child’s world, bewildering, full of terrors, inexplicable rejection, pathetic loyalties and lost loves, apparently senseless cruelties and unexpected benevolences.

In the life, the injured but effusive solitary is stimulated by his situation to an almost appalling restlessness and has a commanding appetite for more and more responsibility. People spoke of him as wishing to marry the whole Hogarth family. He is always handing out money. He is the domestic martinet, pushing his wife out of control of his changing houses as he gets richer, inspecting the rooms, each morning, the furniture, the servants, the general upkeep, like a general keeping his troops up to scratch and as scrupulous in this as he is with his dandified linen. He organizes the fun. There are sprees, parties, dinners, plays, but he is the manipulator. In the pursuit of wealth he is the keen entrepreneur. He is arrogant if crossed; but generous to a degree to friends. Any cause connected with the English poor, any scandal connected with the cruelties of the law, are his affair. He is no blustering upstart. At the age of twenty-seven when he was invited to Lady Holland’s fashionable salon, the young reporter who had become famous astonished by his elegance and performance as the witty and immensely sortable young gentleman, in a very snobbish age.

We move toward the crisis, the breakdown of middle age. There are three adroitly selected portraits in this book. There is the angelic, almost feminine beauty of the young man; there is Frith’s portrait of the flushed and arrogant success, with the eyes that are indeed magnetic; and finally at fifty, eight years before his death, the wornout, despairing, almost ferocious and haggard figure of the liaison with Ellen Ternan and the American readings that killed him. From the drastic breakup of his marriage, in which he went to the length of walling himself from his wife’s bedroom, there is the usual recovery and in fact an enlarging of his powers.

He had always been autobiographical: now he saw the double self of Our Mutual Friend. (He had already created the England of heartless glut in Dombey & Son.) He turned with fascination to his own tormented nature. The MacKenzies can but agree with Forster—and for all his pomposity Forster was a perceptive biographer—that although the persistent emotions of childhood served Dickens’s art, they were inadequate to the demands of adult life. They write:


The mastery of make-believe was the solution of a genius to the bewildering problems of life…. The euphoria of effort was always followed by the reaction of despair…. It was easy, as Forster remarked, for him to impose “an orderly arrangement of things” on his plots and to manipulate his characters to fit his sentiments…. In domestic matters, [Forster] added, Dickens “had not in himself the resources that such a man, judging from the surface, might be expected to have had…. There was for him ‘no city of the mind’ against outside ills, for inner consolation and shelter.”

He genuinely believed love, charity, and forgiveness could change the hearts of men in an England that had become so grossly given to the pursuit of the new wealth, which he scourged; but when his own sensitivities were touched, his resentment flared.

The story of the last years is terrifying: the greed and restlessness redoubled, the gloom in the tormented mind appalls, the actor triumphs over the writer. We see him lost in the inextricable maze of Edwin Drood, its plain realism dims his fantasy. But the MacKenzies remind us of what we have forgotten: one of their comments about his work sticks in the mind. As a novelist he was content with the slack and conventionally melodramatic plots: his eager genius lay in filling in the picaresque detail of English life. The restlessness was not entirely pathological; it was connected with the avidity of his powers of observation. The crowd was seen and heard, man by man, woman by woman, child by child. There has never been such an image-making child’s eye for the surface of life: the very houses become animated, and their rooms are chock full of voices; nor have we had, in his later years, such a master of symbolism.

This Issue

July 19, 1979