Charles Dickens

A Life Defined by Writing

by Michael Slater

Yale, 720 pp., $35

To begin with a mild apology: This reviewer’s first serious encounter with Charles Dickens (apart from A Christmas Carol, which English-speaking children once heard from their cradles) was with David Copperfield, under the genial tutelage of Professor Harry Kitsun Russell in Chapel Hill, circa 1954. Since we are approaching the writer’s 200th birthday in 2012, this bicentennial reprise demands some refinement of memory, and since my last Dickens binge passed decades ago and, moreover, I feel no present urge to reread Copperfield (Dickens’s own favorite at 974 pages, his only plausibly autobiographical novel) or Bleak House (at 933 pages, one of his midcareer masterpieces), a remedy suggested itself: a first reading of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the detective story he had only half finished when he was mortally stricken one June day in 1870, aged 58.

The “mystery” of the story is that having broken his childhood engagement to the fetching Rosa Bud (Dickens’s penchant for odd names is sometimes cringe-making) young Drood abruptly disappears, and foul play is suspected of two other male characters, themselves smitten by Rosa, jealous of Drood, and unaware that the engagement has been broken—with what warrant Dickens doubtless intended to reveal in the last serial numbers of his tale. Many guesses have been made at the outcome, including a farcical “trial” of the chief suspect in London in January 1914. It starred such participants as George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton (as presiding judge), and Arthur Waugh, father of Evelyn, and it ended with the suspect found guilty. Dickens’s novels invariably contain a vein of mystery but Drood was to be his first contribution to the detective-story genre, inspired in part by the whodunits of his younger friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins.

Dickens died shockingly young by our standards, and to read Drood today is to find his fabulous powers undimmed. No point exploring the entrancing but incomplete Drood in detail, except as it illustrates the undiminished power of the novelist’s characterizations—for instance, in the person of Hiram Grewgious, London barrister and trustee of Rosa Bud:

He was an arid, sandy man, who, if he had been put into a grinding mill, looked as if he would have ground immediately into high-dried snuff. He had a scanty flat crop of hair .  .  . so unlike hair that it must have been a wig but for the stupendous improbability of anybody’s voluntarily sporting such a head.

Here, we are reminded of such improbable but unforgettable figures as Mr. Krook, of Bleak House, who, overfilled with gin, expires of “spontaneous combustion.”

No matter how many inventive twists the art of fiction has undergone since Dickens left Drood unfinished, he remains in the forefront of our literary consciousness, as firmly fixed there as Chaucer and Shakespeare, his mentors in the creation of the unforgettable. Like the foregoing Mr. Grewgious, his characterizations transcend odd names to insinuate themselves as permanently in the readerly imagination as Falstaff or Macbeth or the Wife of Bath. Who can forget Uriah Heep, or Mr. Micawber, or Scrooge, et al., nearly ad infinitum, or the tags they trail along: Heep’s cringing humility, or Micawber’s improvident but incurable optimism, or Scrooge’s gruff stinginess?

But in Dickens’s history there is an enduring touch of the cultic, too. At a recent New York auction, the novelist’s ivory and gold toothpick, engraved with his initials, was purchased for almost $10,000. And at almost the same time it was reported that the young Vincent van Gogh, sent at 20 to London, fell in love with the city as imperishably mediated by the pen of—Charles Dickens. And Holden Caulfield, of Catcher in the Rye, could be sure that readers of his punkish pseudo-autobiography would get the point when he promised to omit “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

Dickens’s durability is hardly freakish, however. It bears testimony to the survival power of art. He has accordingly benefited from persistent critical attention, likewise emblematic of permanence. Edmund Wilson, writing in the 1930s, sought to rescue him from faddish efforts of the Depression era to recruit him, inveterate scold as he was of official torpor and malpractice, for Marxism and other ideologies. Wilson insisted that Dickens was actually a proto-modernist, a pioneer of the use of symbolism—notably in the perverse equity proceedings of the Court of Chancery, with its banks and swirls of fog. George Orwell, amplifying Wilson’s point, found in Dickens no solid understanding of the political or social structures he scorned, but also acknowledged his greatness. The palm for critical enthusiasm must go to Lionel Trilling, who pronounced in 1956 that Dickens “is one of the two greatest novelists of England, Jane Austen being the other”—an eccentric judgment, not so much because it elevates Dickens and Austen as because it neglects such claimants as Conrad, George Eliot, and the half-English Henry James. And of course many others.

Then there is Vladimir Nabokov’s rhapsodic appreciation of Bleak House in the “Lectures on Literature” that Fredson Bowers distilled from Nabokov’s lecture notes at Wellesley and Cornell, lit crit at its most magisterial: “We just surrender ourselves to Dickens’s voice,” gushed the future author of Lolita. “If it were possible I would like to devote 50 minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration and admiration of Dickens.”

Enter now Michael Slater, emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birkbeck College, London, and past president of the International Dickens Fellowship, with this mammoth new study of Dickens as a professional writer. Slater’s imposing work has “bicentennial” written all over it. It is academic biography at its weightiest, exhaustive, and meticulous. Its only defect is, at times, so to flatten the terrain of Dickens’s life and work as to render creative mountains indistinguishable from quotidian molehills. But since there are no Mozarts of writing; and the sometimes prosaic details of a writerly apprenticeship drag drearily along, these developmental symptoms are essential to the understanding, even, of genius.

The rewards are considerable. If you wish to know, for instance, all there is to know about Dickens’s public readings—he had a big histrionic streak and his performances at the podium were winningly theatrical—you will savor here the details Slater offers about his prompt books, with measures of their size, content, and binding; how, before the age of microphones, a cloth screen amplified his voice to thousands of eager listeners in packed SRO halls; how gaslight jets illuminated his reading text at a waist-high reading desk; how Dickens dressed in formal evening attire, the better to assure middle-class audiences that they were not squandering their shillings on louche theatrical events but attending a gentleman’s at-home entertainments. Those who recall Emlyn Williams’s evocative faux-Dickens act in the 1950s will recognize the flavor.

If, meanwhile, you find yourself gasping, in sympathetic breathlessness, at Dickens’s astonishing energy, and wonder about its toll, it is to the point to read that his friends thought, in his later years, that he was dangerously overstraining himself. You will be intrigued to learn that as he wrote Great Expectations (1861) he suffered from chronic facial pain that vanished only as he wrote the last lines. Like many of the great Victorians, Dickens was a walker, who covered miles as others cover yards or furlongs—sometimes 20 or even 30 at a time. Walking was apparently essential to his abiding sanity, even when it apparently produced a gimpy leg. But Slater, sticking to his brief, rarely ventures into the tricky realm of psychosomatic speculation.

In the early stages of the English novel, readers followed developing tales in monthly paperbound numbers. Later readers often have a sense that the Victorian novelist was plotting his stories as he went along, as indeed Dickens did for some years, occasionally moderating plotlines that failed to please readers. This was Dickens’s practice in his first great hit, The Pickwick Papers, signed with the nom de plume “Boz,” and for a time thereafter. Not until he projected Dombey and Son (1848) did he first outline in advance how and where his lengthy tales would end. Not that this entirely eliminated their episodic feel and bumpy pace.

A biographer of Slater’s learning and distinction is entitled to choose his own narrative strategy. But we are taken here on a lockstep chronological march, as if to a silent drumbeat; and some narrative thrust is sacrificed to it by the intrusion of secondary detail. And there is that in great plenty: Dickens’s collateral work as the editor of two successful monthly magazines, pamphleteering journalist, entertainer, actor, producer of amateur theatricals, traveler, and activist in charitable causes. Even those with a nodding acquaintance with the novels may regret Slater’s failure to provide reminders of plot and character in this teeming world. But then, it is his aim to deal definitively with Dickens’s career as a professional writer. He shows that Dickens was a pioneer in that professionalization, looking to the enhancement of what he called the “dignity” of literary storytelling, and the need to emancipate novelizing from aristocratic and official patronage.

We learn all there is to learn about the novelist’s writing habits, his nomadic household wanderings, and not least his sympathetic preoccupation with forlorn children, having been one when his father was sent for three months to debtor’s prison and he himself was abandoned, as a child of 12, to labor in a shoe-blacking factory in the Strand. Dickens never forgot the humiliation of being gaped at through the windows of the firm, as he and other urchins (one of whom became the namesake of the evil Fagin) washed bottles and pasted labels. Nor did he forget, nor fail to resent, his mother’s strange wish that he go on washing bottles, even after his father’s release from the Marshalsea.

Slater is at his most vivid when he comes to a shocking personal episode: Dickens’s brutal separation from his wife of more than 20 years (and 10 children!) in 1858. He had all along romanticized his wife’s younger sister who died early, whose short life he idealized and mourned. He clearly was more in love with her than her sister to begin with. More to the point, Dickens was smitten in 1857 by the teenaged actress Nelly Ternan, a passion that could not be acknowledged for fear of scandal. English divorce laws did not permit release from his marriage. His resort was to a separation, cruelly signaled by orders on his part to wall off Catherine’s bedchamber from his workroom and to replace a connecting door with a bookcase.

In correspondence, he went to the length of portraying his wife as a Medusa who turned her own daughters to “stone.” Little more is known of all this now than in 1858, though it calls down an unusual tone of censure. Some inflation of Dickens’s ego by mass adulation and fantastic earnings may be suspected; and perhaps the story is less heartless than the sparse details suggest. But rarely has the disparity between genius and personal character been more troubling.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of a historical novel, Lions at Lamb House, imagining a 1908 encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud.

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