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Writer By Trade

Charles Dickens, professional novelist.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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A biographer of Slater’s learning and distinction is entitled to choose his own narrative strategy. But we are taken here on a lockstep chronological march, as if to a silent drumbeat; and some narrative thrust is sacrificed to it by the intrusion of secondary detail. And there is that in great plenty: Dickens’s collateral work as the editor of two successful monthly magazines, pamphleteering journalist, entertainer, actor, producer of amateur theatricals, traveler, and activist in charitable causes. Even those with a nodding acquaintance with the novels may regret Slater’s failure to provide reminders of plot and character in this teeming world. But then, it is his aim to deal definitively with Dickens’s career as a professional writer. He shows that Dickens was a pioneer in that professionalization, looking to the enhancement of what he called the “dignity” of literary storytelling, and the need to emancipate novelizing from aristocratic and official patronage. 

We learn all there is to learn about the novelist’s writing habits, his nomadic household wanderings, and not least his sympathetic preoccupation with forlorn children, having been one when his father was sent for three months to debtor’s prison and he himself was abandoned, as a child of 12, to labor in a shoe-blacking factory in the Strand. Dickens never forgot the humiliation of being gaped at through the windows of the firm, as he and other urchins (one of whom became the namesake of the evil Fagin) washed bottles and pasted labels. Nor did he forget, nor fail to resent, his mother’s strange wish that he go on washing bottles, even after his father’s release from the Marshalsea.

Slater is at his most vivid when he comes to a shocking personal episode: Dickens’s brutal separation from his wife of more than 20 years (and 10 children!) in 1858. He had all along romanticized his wife’s younger sister who died early, whose short life he idealized and mourned. He clearly was more in love with her than her sister to begin with. More to the point, Dickens was smitten in 1857 by the teenaged actress Nelly Ternan, a passion that could not be acknowledged for fear of scandal. English divorce laws did not permit release from his marriage. His resort was to a separation, cruelly signaled by orders on his part to wall off Catherine’s bedchamber from his workroom and to replace a connecting door with a bookcase. 

In correspondence, he went to the length of portraying his wife as a Medusa who turned her own daughters to “stone.” Little more is known of all this now than in 1858, though it calls down an unusual tone of censure. Some inflation of Dickens’s ego by mass adulation and fantastic earnings may be suspected; and perhaps the story is less heartless than the sparse details suggest. But rarely has the disparity between genius and personal character been more troubling.


Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of a historical novel, Lions at Lamb House, imagining a 1908 encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud.




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