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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The cataract of absurdity was felt by visitors to the man at home. A young woman aged 19, Eleanor Picken, describes Dickens playing games, his wife Catherine making outrageous puns while he “tore his hair and pretended to writhe in agony.” But playtime was over when it came time to write the next episode of The Old Curiosity Shop; then he would “walk past without a greeting, his eyes like ‘danger-lamps,’ ” a Dickens Eleanor found no less than frightening. One might even imagine that the terrible colds he periodically suffered from, well-described by Tomalin, were but another manifestation, this time of a system in disrepair, of his torrential energy; as was the increasing ruthlessness shown toward his wife, when after producing 10 children she was shunted off, having been literally used-up. (Dickens had a partition put up between her bedroom and a dressing room where he slept alone.) There followed the separation and his cohabitation with the young actress Ellen (“Nelly”) Ternan. One of Tomalin’s previous biographies (The Invisible Woman) is about Nelly, but it was hard for this reader, in the pages Tomalin writes about her here, to be deeply interested in her character.

Tomalin adduces Dickens’s presentation of Edith Dombey (in Dombey and Son), who leaves her husband and in order to humiliate him takes up with his office manager Carker, as an instance of Dickens’s inability to write about sex. Even given Victorian convention, he “did not know how to write or think about it, at any rate in relation to adult women.” But life may have been a different matter: Tomalin rather cautiously says she is “inclined to believe,” on the evidence of Dickens’s letters and other circumstances, that he was, indeed, Nelly Ternan’s lover, perhaps even fathered a child who died. Early on he writes from his holiday stay at Broadstairs, on the south coast of England, to his bachelor friend, the painter Daniel Maclise, urging him to visit and noting, “There are conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) and I know where they live.” As Tomalin comments, this doesn’t sound like a joke, and Dickens’s interest in prostitutes may have to do with more than looking out for Maclise.

How much literary criticism we desire or expect from a biographer is always a question; but it seems a pity when the chronicler of a life has little time to spare for celebrating what is of most importance about that life: in Dickens’s case, the novels he produced so unflaggingly from Pickwick down through Our Mutual Friend and the uncompleted Edwin Drood. On this score Tomalin cannot be faulted, since she not only devotes a few pages of commentary to each book but is discriminating and firmly judgmental in that commentary. In some paragraphs about Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, she singles out the character of Squeers, the despicable headmaster, for special praise, notes how tremendously the book begins, commends its descriptions of London, and quotes some wonderfully descriptive sentences from John Forster’s pioneering three-volume biography (1871-4). She also admits that the book has troubles later on, in her own words:

the rambling unplanned plot, the feebleness of several of the villains, to which may be added the still greater feebleness of the benevolent characters and the interminable and almost unreadable last quarter of the book, where forced marriages, stolen wills, lost children found and sudden deaths are all requisitioned from the crude traditions of melodrama.

About the more complicated case of an also uneven but richer novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, she quotes from the marvelous description of Todgers, the London boarding house, pays tribute to Mrs. Gamp and Seth Pecksniff, and singles out the young Mr. Bailey and his several wonderful acts (placing a lighted candle in his mouth to amuse the Pecksniff daughters), and with one well-chosen quotation brings the book to life: “Go a-tip-toe over the pimples!” Bailey instructs Poll Sweedlepipe, the barber about to shave his still-hairless face.