By DAVID GATES
Published: November 3, 2011
Robert DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST, the Oxford scholar who is one of Charles Dickens’s two new biographers, rightly calls his subject “at once the most central and most eccentric literary figure” of his age, and the investigations into the dark corners of that eccentric life began with Dickens himself. In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking. The first volume of the biography he’d wanted Forster to write — which made the blacking-factory episode public — appeared in 1872, two years after Dickens died at the age of 58, and its successors keep coming. The Dickens biographies published just in the past 25 years make an impressive stack. Given his uncanny genius and the vivid complexity of his life, that’s not a complaint.
Image from the Bodleian Library, Oxford University
An etching of Charles Dickens from The Court Magazine and Monthly Critic, in 1837.
By Claire Tomalin
Illustrated. 527 pp. The Penguin Press. $36
The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Illustrated. 389 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $29.95
Still, in all these books, the most memorable moments come from the accounts of those who saw him in person. I’d trade a whole pile of biographies for a video clip of the young Dickens, while courting Catherine Hogarth, his wife-to-be, leaping unannounced through the French windows of her family’s house in a sailor suit, dancing a hornpipe, leaping out again, then walking in at the door “as sedately as though quite innocent of the prank.” And I’d trade that clip, plus the biographies, for footage of Dickens’s face-to-face interview with his admirer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1862. “He told me,” Dostoyevsky recalled in a letter written years later, “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. . . . There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel, I try to live my life.”
Claire Tomalin, the other new biographer, who quotes this confession in “Charles Dickens: A Life,” calls it “amazing” — though it’s only amazing because it’s the image-conscious Dickens himself coming out and saying what anybody familiar with his work and his life has always intuited. “It is as though with Dostoyevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public.”
As Tomalin notes, this “must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life,” and it seems to be one of the few crucial bits of Dickensiana that’s relatively fresh. Both Tomalin and Michael Slater, who cites the same passage in his 2009 biography, “Charles Dickens,” found the newly translated Dostoyevsky letter in a 2002 article in The Dickensian. Neither Fred Kaplan (“Dickens: A Biography,” 1988) nor Peter Ackroyd (“Dickens,” 1991) seems to have known about it. Mostly, the recent biographies are remixes of familiar episodes and anecdotes; their interest lies largely in what’s included and what’s left out, how deeply the biographer goes into unpublished or unfamiliar work, and what’s adduced from further research into the world in which Dickens lived and worked.
Neither Tomalin nor Douglas-Fairhurst, in “Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist,” sees fit to show us Dickens dancing the hornpipe in his sailor suit, though Ackroyd and Slater apparently found it a charming, perhaps significant, glimpse of the young man at play. And how could Tomalin have resisted the story of Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell (affectionately evoked as Dora in “David Copperfield,” then cruelly caricatured as Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit”), near the end of her life, drunkenly kissing the place on her couch where he’d once sat? Maria’s former nursemaid published the account in 1912; Douglas-Fairhurst retells it, and while Slater didn’t include it in his biography, he’d already used it in an earlier book, “Dickens and Women.” Yet only an obsessive would worry too much about which anecdote didn’t make whose cut: an ideal life of Dickens would just stick in everything, and probably no publisher would touch it.
After Tomalin’s much-praised biographies of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys, it’s no surprise to find her portrait of Dickens at least as thorough as Kaplan’s or Slater’s, though she gives us no introduction explaining why previous biographies have made hers necessary, and sometimes teases us with flat summary where we want meat. (If, for instance, “the critics were merciless” about his 1846 Christmas book, “The Battle of Life,” why not quote them?) Her book lacks the rich texture and empathetic intimacy of Ackroyd’s far longer work. On the other hand, Tomalin would never indulge in zaniness like Ackroyd’s interpolated self-interview or his scene in which Dickens meets his own characters or the imagined encounter between Dickens and a biographer, presumably Ackroyd himself. And Tomalin’s treatment of the great secret of Dickens’s life — his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan, for whom he left his marriage in 1858, when he was 46 and she was 19 — seems more credible, even when it’s necessarily speculative. In 1990 she devoted an entire book, “The Invisible Woman,” to exploring this secret — whose existence Dickensians have known about at least since the 1930s.
Despite Dickens’s discreet, intermittent cohabitation with Ternan, Ackroyd found it “almost inconceivable” that the two actually went to bed together: he argued that their idyll was merely “the realization of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies. That of sexless marriage with a young, idealized virgin.” Few other scholars agree — not even Edgar Johnson, whose two-volume “Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph,” published in 1952, was the first major modern biography. As Tomalin notes, Dickens was a sexual creature: he fathered 10 children with his wife, and after they separated he apparently sought treatment for a venereal infection. Had he been such a prude as his fiction and his public persona sometimes suggested — after news of his separation got around, Forster had to talk him out of calling a new start-up magazine Household Harmony — he would hardly have remained close friends with sophisticated sexual outlaws like the artists Frank Stone and Daniel Maclise, the novelist Wilkie Collins and the Count d’Orsay, the French dandy whom he made godfather to his son Alfred. Hearsay and circumstantial evidence even suggest that Ternan might have borne Dickens a son, who died within a year.
We can only guess about certain aspects of Dickens’s relationship with Ternan, but Tomalin does build a convincing case. She’s less convincing when she suggests that Dickens’s fatal stroke might have happened while he was off with Ternan, and that he might have been sneaked back into his own house, unconscious, to be officially discovered. This reads like some of the wilder theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but, to Tomalin’s credit, she doesn’t insist on it.
Douglas-Fairhurst’s “Becoming Dickens” takes us only through 1839 and the completion of “Oliver Twist,” Dickens’s second novel — and the first whose title page he dignified with his own name rather than “Boz,” the cockney-ish alias under which he first became popular with “Sketches by Boz” and “The Pickwick Papers.” Douglas-Fairhurst’s is a far more lively and detailed book — a more Dickensian book — than Tomalin’s, though not always to its advantage. When his painstaking research combines with an overactive fancy, we get such passages as this description of Dickens taking a curtain call after his now-forgotten 1836 operetta “The Village Coquettes”: “The curtains of St. James’s Theatre were green” — how did he find that out? — “as were the covers of ‘Pickwick,’ so in coming onstage Dickens would have looked strangely like the author himself emerging from his writing.”
Yet more often Douglas-Fairhurst serves as a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, yet sympathetic tour guide to the young Dickens’s strange world and equally strange sensibility. He performs deft deconstructions of such arcana as a labored comic poem to Maria Beadnell: “Telling a new girlfriend what you would feel like if she were dead is certainly an unusual seduction technique.” He discusses the trash Dickens read as a boy (from “The Terrific Register” to a comic miscellany called “Broad Grins”), a probable inspiration for Oliver Twist’s benefactor Mr. Brownlow (a man of the same name was secretary of the Foundling Hospital “a few hundred yards from Dickens’s home”) and a precursor of the rapid-fire tale-spinning of Jingle in “Pickwick” (the monologues of the comedian Charles Mathews, “Dickens’s favorite solo performer”). His research extends to the pirates and imitators who ripped off Dickens’s early work — including one G. M. W. Reynolds, whose “Pickwick in India” “abruptly ceased publication after seven chapters when the author . . . wrote himself into a corner with a gloating description of Mr. Pickwick being devoured by a shark.” And it’s Douglas-Fairhurst, not the sober-sided Tomalin, who sees the humor in this icky irrelevancy: Dickens’s publisher had wanted to give his first book the Elmer Fuddian title “Bubbles From the Bwain of Boz.”
In fairness to Tomalin, the story she’s obliged to tell of her subject’s later life would temper anybody’s sense of fun. The leaping, hornpiping young man aged badly. In his 50s he often hobbled around with a gouty foot, and sometimes had to be helped onstage during the obsessive and exhausting reading tours that may have hastened his death — a malign redirecting of the manic energy that had once enabled him to work on two serialized novels simultaneously while also editing a monthly magazine. Twenty-eight times between January 1869 and March 1870, Dickens performed the horrifying episode in “Oliver Twist” in which Bill Sikes murders the prostitute Nancy. After it, Dickens had to lie down, unable to speak; when his manager tried to get him to do quieter readings, he threw a tantrum and burst into tears.
Tomalin accurately describes Dickens’s treatment of the abandoned Catherine as shameful: he went so far as to publish a letter accusing her of “a mental disorder,” and he wrote to a friend that she was glad to be rid of their children, “and they are glad to be rid of her.” His daughter Katey recalled that after the separation, “my father was like a madman. . . . He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.”
Dickens had a premonitory stroke in 1869, and at his final public reading, in March 1870, he was unable to pronounce the name “Pickwick.” On June 8, he had another stroke, and the next day the unconscious Dickens “gave a sigh, a tear appeared in his right eye and ran down his cheek, and he stopped breathing.” That tear was the last of Dickens’s many gifts to his biographers — of all the recent retellings of the death scene, only Michael Slater’s version omits it — and here’s hoping we’ll see it again and again and again until the ideal, the impossible life is written at last.
David Gates’s most recent book is “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” a collection of stories.