The Magazine

Charles the Great

Dickens and the art of fiction.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Photo of Charles Dickens Writing at a Desk

Charles Dickens, 1865

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The Dickens bicentenary is nearly upon us (he was born in February 1812), and he will not lack for biographical attention. Over the past decade there has been much scholarly activity on his behalf: the completion of 12 volumes of letters; a four-volume edition of his journalism; continuing “definitive” editions of the novels. Peter Ackroyd’s massive biography of 1991 is about to be reissued, and two years ago Michael Slater published a substantial one that focused especially on the novels’ relation to Dickens’s letters and other writings. Now Claire Tomalin, as professional in the tradition as they come (biographies of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas Hardy, among others), has given us, in 500-plus pages, the ideal book for a nonspecialist reader curious about the personal and literary career of this famous man. Dickens “saw the world more vividly than other people,” writes Tomalin in her prologue—and indeed, he called himself at one point The Inimitable, a claim wholly justified by this sympathetically incisive account.

At least since Edmund Wilson’s influential 1940 essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” we tend to view Dickens’s childhood through the disfiguring experience of working in the London blacking shop on the Thames while his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. Tomalin doesn’t neglect the important influence of this experience on the man Dickens would become, but she also gives us what he would later see as idyllic years in his childhood, the ones spent in Chatham, near Rochester, in Kent, 30 miles from London, where his father had been sent by the Navy Pay Office. Those were the years that, under the tutelage of his mother and making use of his father’s small library at the top of the house, he read the 18th-century novelists—Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith—along with volumes of the Tatler and Spectator, and all manner of fairy tales and farces. His nurse called him, in a picturesque phrase worthy of the novelist to come, “a terrible boy to read,” and the solitary pursuit was supplemented by varieties of invented games, theatrical performances, music, and mimicry—the last particularly expressive of the genius writer to come. In his later years he would move into a house he had built on Gad’s Hill (Falstaff territory) near Rochester and Chatham—“a fulfillment of his childhood ambition,” Tomalin calls it—when he had finished Little Dorrit and was about to separate from his wife, Catherine.

At the end of her chapter “Becoming Boz 1827-1834,” when Dickens was about to burst into prominence with the Boz sketches followed by The Pickwick Papers, Tomalin gives one of her efficient, helpful, and graceful summings-up:

He had spent seven years applying himself to master a series of different skills. .  .  . He had served in lawyers’ offices, taught himself shorthand, taken down law cases, reported the procedures of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, prepared himself for the acting profession and returned to writing about what he saw around him for magazines. .  .  . His pursuit of various goals was so energetic, and he demonstrated such an ability to do many different things at once, and fast, that even his search for a career had its aspect of genius.

The genius became fully apparent as Pickwick unfolded itself in issues of Bentley’s Miscellany and appeared as a whole in 1837. From the moment the four Pickwickians encounter the man in green, Mr. Alfred Jingle, who offers to treat Mr. Snodgrass’s injured eye—“Waiter; raw beef-steak for the gentleman’s eye—nothing like raw beef-steak for a bruise, Sir; cold lamp-post very good but lamp-post inconvenient—damned odd standing in the open street half an hour, with your eye against a lamp post”—“energetic” is but a feeble word to describe the operation of Dickens’s style. He was never funnier or more verbally creative than in the great comic scenes of Pickwick. G. K. Chesterton said that it wasn’t a novel at all and that its power lay in “the perpetual torrent of ingenious and inventive treatment” of life. He also called it a “colossal cataract of absurdity.” No subsequent critic has found better words to characterize the explosive violence of the great style.