A Terrible Bad Cold

John Sutherland

  • Dickens by Peter Ackroyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 1195 pp, £19.95, September 1990, ISBN 1 85619 000 5

In the manner of old Hollywood movies, biographies like to open at a terminal point and then flash back to the start of things. It is a device that stakes out the territory while creating a sense of overall shape – something that even famous lives lack in the day-to-day business of living. Fred Kaplan’s 1988 life of Dickens began with the vivid scene of his incinerating ‘every letter he owned not on a business matter’ in a bonfire at his Gad’s Hill garden. What Kaplan ruefully implied by opening with the manuscript holocaust of 1860 was that there was a core of Dickens’s life which we would never know. Dickens laboured tirelessly to make himself publicly famous and at the same time to bury the private Dickens beyond all exhumation. He largely succeeded thanks to his own vandalism and Forster’s loyal destructions and suppressions. We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.

Kaplan’s is an academic’s view of things. For him and his university-based colleagues biographies, like legal cases, are built on the hard evidence of literary remains and interviewable eye-witnesses. No Aspern papers, no Aspern biography. Ackroyd, who is not an academic, thinks otherwise. His life of Dickens opens with the great man dead, lying on the green sofa in the dining-room of Gad’s Hill Place. But Ackroyd does not regard his subject across any fence: he knows Dickens as intimately as the man knew himself; better, perhaps, since Dickens was not great on self-knowledge. There are no lost keys, no closed doors. Ackroyd, for instance, can read the expression on the dead Dickens face on the narrow green sofa. The expression is childlike: ‘It was the look he recorded in William Dorrit’s face in death; it was the look which he saw in the faces of the corpses on view in the Paris Morgue. This connection between death and infancy is one that had haunted him; sleep, repose, death, infancy, innocence, oblivion are the words that formed a circle for him, bringing him back to the place from which he had begun. Here in Gad’s Hill, close to the town in which he had lived as a small child, here in the house which his father had once shown him; here the circle was complete.’

A sceptic might ask how Peter Ackroyd knows that Dickens’s face bore an infantile look in death? No one there seems to have recorded the fact. Was Ackroyd, like Scrooge, transported to the room by the spirit of biography past? How does Ackroyd know that Dickens’s final mental state was one of mellow fruition, the circle completed? Witnesses report that Dickens – who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage – expired in a state of miserable confusion and exasperation. If he had to die in 1870, would he not have chosen the end of the year, when Edwin Drood was completed?

The media preparation for this biography has been intense. Sinclair-Stevenson’s expert publicists have hammered away at the theme of Britain’s greatest living novelist versus Britain’s greatest ever novelist as if it were a literary Godzilla meets King Kong. Ackroyd understands Dickens better than pettifogging academics because Ackroyd, like his subject, is a creative genius, and such minds are privileged to think alike. Ackroyd himself makes this claim, if rather more tactfully than his publicity. Biographies, as he asserts in his opening and closing remarks, should be agents of ‘true knowledge’ and ‘real knowledge’ and this is gained by inspired intuition, mystical inwardness. Ackroyd, we apprehend, is close to – even at times inside – Dickens in ways that mere letters, diaries or memoranda could never permit. ‘I wanted to understand him,’ he says: ‘in that sense Dickens was like a character in a novel I might write – I never like or dislike any of the characters I have created. I simply try to understand them and, in understanding them, to bring them to life.’ Ackroyd understands Dickens, then, as Dickens might understand Micawber. Thou, Ackroyd, seest him.

Ackroyd intrudes his supra-academic credentials on the reader during the course of the narrative. There are seven free-wheeling interludes or inter-chapters. The first fantasises a meeting between Dickens and Little Dorrit. He tells her that his father, too, was incarcerated in the Marshalsea. Brief complications ensue. The third interlude imagines a conversation between Chatterton, Wilde, T.S. Eliot and Dickens – all Ackroydian subjects (‘William Blake will be joining us shortly,’ Chatterton says). The fifth interlude recounts a face-to-face meeting between Dickens and Ackroyd (‘Some of my best friends are biographers,’ Dickens says. It’s the wittiest line he has in the book). In the seventh and last interlude, Ackroyd records a sinister dream he had of Dickens while writing the biography.

These interludes allow Ackroyd to emerge as himself, the novelist and creative writer, unfettered for a moment by the drudgery of the biographical task. He also employs an opposite device by which he occasionally becomes Dickens as he writes about Dickens. Particularly at the beginnings of his chapters, Ackroyd adopts a Bleak House staccato, as a virtuoso might pick up a rival’s Stradivarius and plunk out a phrase. Chapter Three opens:

London. The Great Oven. The Fever Patch. Babylon. The Great Wen. In the early autumn of 1822 the ten-year-old Charles Dickens entered his kingdom.

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