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The Hero of His Own Life?

Charles Dickens: A Life

Claire Tomalin
The Penguin Press, October 2011

Why does Charles Dickens elicit our warmest sympathies? Is it the compassion radiating from his Christmas novels? Our conviction that this hierophant of social consciousness deserves our empathy in kind, for as Claire Tomalin writes in her new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, he “rendered nineteenth-century England crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation—and sentimentality”? Like writer and editor Robert Gottlieb, we find his life stories “endlessly recountable.” Some aficionados, like New Yorker staff writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore (who will soon write her own study of Dickens in America) are even enthralled enough to flock to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Dickens Universe, an annual one-week intensive summer camp and rarefied curiosity shop of lectures, films, Victorian dances, and formal teas, where participants readily compare one another to Dickensian characters and purchase quaint items at auction (“Miss Havisham’s Insomnia Kit,” for example, consists of tea and a candle).

George Orwell, writing in 1940, suspected that we base our vision of Dickens’s “implied” benevolence on the kindness and generosity of spirit he infused into his literary works. In Inside The Whale and Other Essays, he contended,

a writer’s literary personality has little or nothing to do with his private character. It is quite possible that in private life, Dickens was [an] insensitive egoist…but in his published work there is implied a personality…which has won him far more friends than enemies.

What Orwell perceived as a singularly British reticence about critiquing Dickens applied to both his life and his writing: “he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling,” he quipped.

Orwell was right. To date, major biographies of Dickens by his dearest friend and literary executor John Forster, scholar Fred Kaplan, historian Peter Ackroyd, and eminent Victorianist Michael Slater (editor of The Charles Dickens Fellowship’s journal, The Dickensian) have brought into relief his hardscrabble childhood, critical reception of his fiction, and journalistic forays. Their touch, though, is ever reverential, chary of judging this ebullient, prolific, and beloved caricaturist of Victorian lives and foibles. Despite their significant illumination of his novelistic craft, journalists past and present have hinted that a darker Dickens belies these portraits. In 1870, upon reading Forster’s biography, Thomas Carlyle wrote to its author of “dark, fateful, silent elements, tragical to look upon…hiding amid the dazzling radiances” of Dickens’s character. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Slater’s biography in The Atlantic last spring, took the awl to biographers who married Dickens’s art with his life:

What is necessary is a portrait that supplies for us…some real villainy and cruelty to set against the angelic and the innocent…yet we remain in much the same position as those naïve Victorian readers who were so upset when Forster told them that [Dickens] had drawn his dramatis personæ from wretched life itself…the next biography should take this stark chiaroscuro as its starting point.

Claire Tomalin enters the fray with considerable authority, notably as Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature, and as an award-winning biographer of Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen. The first to unveil the strong likelihood of a sexual relationship between Dickens and the impoverished thespian Ellen Ternan, who, with her sisters and widowed mother, took up a career in acting and costume design at a tender age. Tomalin brings her wealth of skill to Charles Dickens: A Life, a passionately researched, brilliantly executed alembic.

Initially, the book waxes hagiographic. A detailed dramatis personæ and a gallery of exquisitely limned maps identifying Dickens’s homes and haunts determinedly evoke the chimerical world of the Hundred Acre Wood, Wonderland, or a similar setting from a Charles Perrault fairytale. The opening anecdote highlights Dickens’s beneficence—his fervent juridical advocacy for the acquittal of Eliza Burgess, a young housekeeper accused of infanticide. Dickens set aside his own journalistic assignments and newborn daughter Katey

to help a young woman whose character and history are quite without interest or color, and who comes from the very bottom of the social heap…he’s at his best as a man, determined in argument, generous in giving help, following through the case, motivated purely by his profound sense that it was wrong that she should be victimized further.

The breadth of his compassion for orphans, child laborers, working mothers, and paupers resonates throughout the book, which chronicles his establishment of the Home for Homeless Women, a halfway house offering former prostitutes respite, clean clothing, rudimentary education, community, and encouragement to reform their lives through marriage or emigration. Witness the gracious Dickens, humbling himself before his charges, and ennobling them in turn: “I am going to offer you…all these blessings…and do not think that I write to you as if I felt myself very much above you. God forbid! I mean nothing but kindness to you, and I write as if you were my sister.”

Potrait of Dickens by Daniel Maclise

Similarly, Tomalin suffuses much of her own narrative with warmth toward such charitable enterprises, and sensitivity to Dickens’s financial struggles, his dedication to journalism, and his abiding concern for the poor. In his early years as a freelance journalist for the True Sun and the Mirror, Tomalin recounts, Dickens was especially moved by proposed parliamentary amendments to the Poor Law that called for the poor to be herded into workhouses, where they would be barely fed and required to wear uniforms. Like the parliamentarian who countered these amendments, which would “dissolve the bonds of society” and “violat[e] the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held,” Dickens was so deeply affected by these proceedings that he wrote Oliver Twist as an invective against such social malaise. As Tomalin chronicles the years when Dickens worked as a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle (an experience later attributed to David Copperfield), she describes at length his physical exhaustion and frequent illnesses. Even in later years, when he became editor of the serial publications Household Words, Bentley’s Miscellany, and All the Year Round, Dickens struggled with fatigue, maladies, and financial distress as he rushed to meet deadlines and collect payments—sometimes as little as £14 a piece—with which to support his growing family and his profligate yet supplicant father. Tomalin’s compassion is evident from her quotation of one of Dickens’s dispiriting, wistful letters to Forster:

the consciousness that my books are enriching everybody connected with them but myself, and that I, with such a popularity as I have acquired, am struggling in old toils, and wasting my energies in the very height and freshness of my fame, and the best part of my life, to fill the pockets of others, while for those who are nearest and dearest to me I can realize little more than a genteel subsistence: all this puts me out of heart and spirits.

Not even negotiations with multiple publishers would bring him the professional and financial stability he ardently sought. Rather, in those days, Tomalin writes with shock, publishers liberally attempted to rob him of copyrights and fair royalty schedules.

Yet she tempers her sympathy with acerbic, well-reasoned appraisals of both his classics and his less canonical novels. The analyses of plot and character, while unsparing of narrative infelicities, particularly in Nicholas Nickleby, Hard Times, and American Notes, are informative and balanced, maintaining enough distance not to devolve into personal antipathy. While she commends the vivacity of the portrayal of London life in Nickleby, she critiques

the rambling unplanned plot, the feebleness of several of the villains, to which must be added the still greater feebleness of the benevolent characters and the interminable, 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.

The “partly perfunctory and partly sentimentalized” characterization of Hard Times redeems itself through the originality of voice, attribute, and ethos. Tomalin views the novel as vatic, avant-garde in its argument that the disabled “could be likable, intelligent, and perceptive,” and didactic in showing “that the world is various, and that the imagination is as important as the multiplication table.”

Her assessments of the balance between characters “comic” and “most splendidly disgusting” in Dombey and Son and of the narrative craft of Bleak House are especially lively. Tomalin counterpoises her own argument that “readers may have moments of impatience when tension slackens and the strain of keeping all the different strands going is felt, but soon the breadth and richness of Dickens’s conception grows clear again, and his superabundance is felt not as a weakness but as a strength” against the criticism of Dickens’s contemporaries. Critics, filled with acrimony, “expressed disappointment that he had abandoned humor for the grotesque and contemptible, and that [Bleak House] was ill constructed.” Tomalin counters that both the book’s sales figures–of thirty-four to forty-three thousand–and the fervor with which Harper’s Magazine purchased American rights, are proof of the novel’s merits and success.

The biography’s most striking undertone is its marked feminism. Tomalin is critical of the conceit of the wan female—“small, pretty, timid, fluttering, and often suffering at the hands of […] official protectors, like Little Nell and Florence Dombey”—that recurs in Dickens’s novels. She focuses on the weakness of Oliver Twist’s melodramatic Nancy (“the chief failure of the book,” “an actress in a bad play” who has “visions of shrouds, coffins, and blood, and is loaded with false theatrical speeches,”); The Old Curiosity Shop’s Nell (“no character beyond sweetness, goodness, and innocence, which endeared her to her readers”); Barnaby Rudge with its “young women insipid”; and Dombey and Son’s Florence, whose “perfect submission and goodness have irritated readers.” Her critique of Dickens’s art mirrors that of

Catherine Dickens

his life, specifically his execrable behavior toward his wife, Catherine, situated “among the blank and blushing innocents.” Tomalin cautions readers to avert their eyes when Dickens and all but one of the children—the same children he described to Forster as “objects” he did not wish to see—leave Catherine for Ellen: “the darkest part of his character was summoned up. He was ready to be cruel to his defenseless wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes.” One of Dickens’s few female biographers, she shores up descriptions of his priggish behavior with quotations from his family’s letters, among them Catherine’s tempered account (“how hardly I have been used,” she wrote). Elizabeth Barrett Browning cast aspersions on him for publishing accounts of his dissolving marriage in foreign newspapers (“what a crime, for a man to use his genius as a cudgel against his near kin”). Similarly, Tomalin calls him an “unreformed Scrooge” when the epithet suits.

She closes with a Rabelaisian enumeration that lays bare Dickens’s contradictions:

he left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version…The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker…The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father…Too mixed to be a gentleman—but wonderful.

Tomalin’s magisterial work, with its able integration of archival material, thoughtful analyses of epistolary and novelistic form, and incisive prose, both vaunts and vilifies him. The book is a welcome rejoinder to Hitchens’s jeremiad, and, at long last, to Katey Dickens’s charge to “make the public understand that [her] father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch.”


The Empty Chair, by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, 1870

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Jaya Aninda Chatterjee, an editorial assistant at Yale University Press, has written for Bookslut, The Millions, and the Colorado Review. She blogs at bookofjreviews.wordpress.com.

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