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.

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.

One of the titles unfortunately missing in Tomalin’s bibliography is Robert Garis’s The Dickens Theatre (1965). No one has replaced Garis’s exquisitely nuanced and bold descriptions of Dickens the theatrical artist, whose métier was not that of convincingly imagining inner lives for his characters but, rather, animating them with boundless resources of surprising and beautiful humor—as in the exclamation above about Bailey’s pimples. But Tomalin does pay full and accurate attention to the theatrical operation in Dickens’s life of performances, culminating in the reading aloud (his first provincial tour consisted of 85 such!) that surely hastened his death at age 58. In those readings he most vividly knew, as he wrote in a letter, “what a thing it is to have power.” Decades afterwards his daughter Katey said that “all his sons baffled him and their incapacity frightened him.” How much more satisfying, then, after Catherine had given birth to son number seven, for Dickens to write a friend in the performing mode: “I begin to count the children incorrectly, they are so many; and to find fresh ones coming down to dinner in a perfect possession, when I thought there were no more.”

In 1862 Dostoyevsky, who admired Dickens and had read Pickwick and David Copperfield in prison, visited the writer in his London office and later wrote what Tomalin rightly calls an amazing report, conveying what Dickens had told him: “that all the good simple people in his novels .  .  . are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote.” Dickens was never used up in what he wrote until the day in 1870 when he collapsed and died. Much later his daughter Katey declared to Gladys Storey (who would write Dickens and Daughter in 1939) that it was impossible to think of our great geniuses as “great characters”—referring to their moral rectitude. 

She was right that one of the things you can’t do to genius is to make it into anything else. The characters of fiction will have to do, as in Dickens’s art they absolutely do.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst.