Love of His Life

Rosemarie Bodenheimer

  • Charles Dickens by Michael Slater
    Yale, 696 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 11207 8

The bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth falls on 7 February 2012, and Dickensians across the globe are stirring. Dickens, who held strong opinions about virtually everything, had his own view of such occasions. Michael Slater notes his ‘embarrassment’ and ‘irritation’ at the Shakespeare tercentenary celebrations of 1864:

always for Dickens the best way for a writer or any other artist to be remembered was not through biographies, unless they redounded as much to the honour of the art concerned as did Forster’s Goldsmith, nor through celebratory odes … still less through the erection of monuments, but through the continued circulation and enjoyment of their work.

Slater’s splendid new biography is written in this same spirit. He probably knows more than anyone else alive about every scrap of writing Dickens produced, and his book is devoted to showing how everything in Dickens’s life was transformed into and by writing. As the editor of the four-volume Dent edition of Dickens’s journalism, Slater has investigated every historical reference and literary allusion in his essays and stories; this Life gives him an opportunity to discuss the innovations in style and subject Dickens introduced, and to suggest the rapidity with which he turned experience into imaginative prose. Along the way we learn about the evolution of Dickens’s working notes (Mems) for the novels, the Christmas numbers of his magazines, the special qualities of his travel letters, the carefully planned scripts for his public readings, his plays and amateur performances, his suggestions to illustrators, and his public speeches, along with his own sense of how each novel was proceeding, month by month. Slater’s respect for Dickens’s professionalism pervades the volume, as he describes the ways in which the writer’s mastery steadily increased. He comes as close as anyone could to measuring the daily, weekly and monthly progress of Dickens’s relentless productivity.

Any Dickens biographer faces a daunting question: how to deal with the equally relentless productivity of the Dickens industry? Since his best friend John Forster published The Life of Charles Dickens (1871-76), the vagaries of Dickens’s life and the brilliance of his writing have led to countless attempts to interpret, diagnose or explain the man through the writing, or the writing through the man. Certain episodes in his life seem to have been designed to encourage speculation. What did happen to the 12-year-old during the few shaming months when he worked at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse? What can we make of his extravagant mourning for his young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth? How do we account for his abrupt and ruthless separation from his wife, Catherine Hogarth Dickens? What did or did not happen between him and the young actress Ellen Ternan during their secret 12-year liaison? Most difficult of all: how to describe the character of this very public, very secretive man?

Slater has read it all, from pathos-ridden tales of an abandoned urban waif, to psychoanalytic accounts of a long-dead man, to attacks on a high-handed writer’s ways of dealing with other people – especially members of his family. His own 1983 study, Dickens and Women, offers a sympathetic and judicious treatment of the trade-off between Dickens’s real and fictional women. More than a quarter of a century later, he has managed to synthesise the vast amount of old and new material, and to register the facts without subjecting the life to any overarching scheme of accusation or defence. This biography draws widely on the work of modern critics, many of whose ideas are incorporated into the narrative and footnoted. But the book feels as if it were starting again on the Dickens story, neither taking on nor fending off other interpretations, but keeping company with Forster, the biographer who knew Dickens and his writing best.

Slater doesn’t begin with a genealogy or a birth scene, but introduces the two earliest surviving specimens of Dickens’s writing. The first, an invitation to a children’s play date, gives Slater the chance to place the Dickens family’s social aspirations: ‘It is redolent of genteel middle-class life as it was lived in the early 19th century with its little social ceremonies and mutual courtesies.’ Dickens’s birth takes the form of his father’s ‘self-consciously genteel announcement’ in the local newspapers. The second specimen, a schoolboy letter apologising for an unreturned Latin book, is an early touchstone for his imaginative life, with its whimsical wordplay and elaborate signature. It contains, Slater notes, Dickens’s first known reference to a wooden leg, an image that would appear again and again in his writing. Those wooden legs have withstood several attempts at interpretation over the years, but Slater mostly just enjoys them. Sometimes a wooden leg is just a wooden leg.

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