His Friends Were Appalled

Deborah Friedell

  • The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster
    Cambridge, 1480 pp, £70.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 1 108 03934 5
  • BuyBecoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
    Harvard, 389 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05003 7
  • Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 527 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 670 91767 9

Only after Charles Dickens was dead did the people who thought they were closest to him realise how little they knew about him. His son Henry remembered once playing a memory game with him:

My father, after many turns, had successfully gone through the long string of words, and finished up with his own contribution, ‘Warren’s Blacking, 30 Strand.’ He gave this with an odd twinkle in his eye and a strange inflection in his voice which at once forcibly arrested my attention and left a vivid impression on my mind for some time afterwards. Why, I could not, for the life of me, understand.

It wouldn’t be until 1872, when the first volume of John Forster’s biography appeared, that Dickens’s wife and children learned about the pots of boot blacking he’d covered (‘first with a piece of oil paper, and then with a piece of blue paper’) for ten hours a day, six shillings a week, while his father was in the Marshalsea. It wasn’t the childhood he wanted, so he hadn’t spoken about it. For Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, in his clever new study, the mass of biographies can make Dickens’s life seem as inevitable as a fairy tale, his genius so self-evident that a novelist’s career was certain. But the alternative lives he might have led, as a debtor like his father, or as a clerk or a journalist, jobs he held and discarded, stayed in his thoughts and haunted his novels.

William James believed that the careers we might have chosen don’t matter very much: ‘Little by little, the habits, the knowledges, of the other career, which once lay so near, cease to be reckoned even among his possibilities. At first, he may sometimes doubt whether the self he murdered in that decisive hour might not have been the better of the two; but with the years such questions themselves expire, and the old alternative ego, once so vivid, fades into something less substantial than a dream.’ The alternatives almost disappear, Douglas-Fairhurst argues, but not entirely, and the most pathetic of Dickens’s orphans and sweepers should be seen as fragments of autobiography, alternative selves that he couldn’t quite shake off.

Only to Forster (‘my wife not excepted’) did Dickens reveal how unlikely his own life sometimes seemed to him: ‘I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.’ For a time, Forster’s biography was considered revelatory, and ranked just behind Boswell’s, even if Forster was thought to have gone on too much about himself. (‘Did Mr Dickens correspond to no one but Mr Forster?’ one reviewer asked. ‘It should not be called the Life of Dickens but the History of Dickens’s Relations to Mr Forster.’) James Ley, who edited an abridged version in the 1920s, thought that the strangest thing about Forster’s book was how little it says about Dickens’s wife. Forster records the births of her children (she had ten), and tells us when she accompanied Dickens to America or to Geneva, but not once does he ‘describe the home life; not one picture has he given us of the wife and mother in her domestic circle’. Forster, a barrister, had drafted the deed of separation between the Dickenses after 21 years of marriage, which banished Catherine Hogarth Dickens from the family home, but he loved his friend too much to write more than a few sentences about it. Dickens’s mistress, Nelly Ternan, appears only as the first beneficiary in Dickens’s will, which is included in an appendix. Where Forster praises Dickens’s ‘unbroken continuity of kindly impulse’, Wilkie Collins wrote in the margins of his copy: ‘Wretched English claptrap.’ Forster’s discretion ensured that he wouldn’t be the definitive biographer, even if no writer would ever know as much about Dickens as he did. Long out of print, his life is now reissued by Cambridge University Press to mark Dickens’s bicentenary.

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