The Magazine

Writer By Trade

Charles Dickens, professional novelist.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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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.

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