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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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.