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 As the editor of the four-volume Dent edition of Dickens’s journalism, Slater has investigated every historical reference and literary allusion in his essays and stories; this Life gives him an opportunity to discuss the innovations in style and subject Dickens introduced, and to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.
Slater ends the book with the documents that Dickens’s audiences read only after his death. His final chapter, entitled ‘Charles Dickens’s Explanations’, links these testaments with the fictional narrator of a late story called ‘George Silverman’s Explanation’, in which Silverman attempts to justify his life but succeeds only in revealing the implacable nature of his resentments. It’s a wry move and characteristic of Slater’s acute critical intelligence. His detailed commentary on Dickens’s will reads it as ‘a composition, with a definite design upon the reader’; like the novels, the will has ‘an attention-grabbing opening’ in its forthright first bequest to Ellen Ternan. The death itself, often the occasion for a biographer’s eulogy, passes very quietly. Like the turning points in Dickens’s life, it’s seen as an occasion to investigate the reactions and interpretations it generated.
The second posthumous document is the so-called autobiographical fragment in which Dickens related his memories of the brief period when he was set to work at the blacking warehouse, and recorded his continuing horror and resentment at his parents’ inability to recognise his special sensitivity and talent. Dickens had led the readers of his half-fictional, half-autobiographical stories to assume that he had enjoyed a normal middle-class upbringing and a better formal education than had in fact come his way. When Forster published the blacking warehouse fragment not long after Dickens’s death, it caused a sensation that set the stage for every subsequent interpretation of Dickens’s life. For Slater it marks less the traumatic centre of Dickens’s psyche than the beginning of his afterlife in the writing of others.
One of his central themes is Dickens’s carefully cultivated love affair with his audiences. In his letters and editorial suggestions, Dickens made it clear that his primary goal was to lead his readers to immerse themselves in his stories. Sometimes he played the role of audience, laughing and crying and praising his own artistry as if it came as a surprise to him. It is well known that the public readings he undertook after 1858 allowed him to glory all the more immediately in his ability to direct and manipulate his listeners’ feelings; Slater also stresses the emotional comfort he sought from ‘his adoring public, the great and abiding love of his life’, especially when he was dissolving his marriage. The long history of his attempts to write his audience into existence comes through particularly well in Slater’s readings of the prefaces to the novels, in which Dickens attempted to take the reader into his confidence, to give him or her a sense that his relationship with them was developing over the years, and to protest against any negative criticisms that might be in circulation. Slater sees Dickens as a strategic creator of his own image: he is to be enjoyed and admired, but he must be read with a degree of scepticism. So, for example, the preface to Nicholas Nickleby ‘is concerned to build up an image of himself as the intimate friend and well-loved literary companion of every individual among his phenomenal readership, preparing them for the new periodical to be launched the following spring’.
Prefaces could also be occasions to rewrite publication history, as with the cheap edition of The Old Curiosity Shop, where Dickens projected his current thoughts onto his original intentions, in a move Slater calls ‘both true and misleading’. Of Dickens’s sympathy with the poor in his periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock, Slater notes: ‘From now on it will become a dominant chord in both his fiction and his journalism, contributing strongly towards giving him that unique public status as deeply compassionate champion of the poor, accorded to him alone among all the writers of the age.’ The extent to which Dickens genuinely was a champion of the poor, or deserved that ‘unique’ status, is a point on which Slater does not venture an opinion; indeed, it is a question that can’t be answered. When it comes to Dickens’s questionable decisions or misguided self-representations, Slater will express ‘wonder’ or remark on ‘strangeness’, leaving Dickens’s own words to make their impression on the reader’s mind. ‘There were areas of his personal life that this intensely autobiographical genius seems to have been able to fence off, temporarily or permanently, from the world of his imagination,’ he writes; and for the most part he does not try to break those fences down. His understanding of Dickens’s writing as a kind of behaviour – the only kind to which we have genuine access – sets Slater’s project apart from previous full-length biographies, and assures its significance.
Slater follows Dickens virtually month by month, assembling an intricate picture in which events in his life feed into his fiction, and hasty bits of journalism influence the monthly instalments of the novel he is working on. For the experienced Dickens reader, great pleasure is to be found in this web of connections: how the birth of one of his children may have helped to shape the birth scenes in Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, how his revulsion at Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents fuelled an article attacking the Pre-Raphaelites in general, or just why that Megalosaurus ‘would have been fresh in Dickens’s memory’ as he wrote the remarkable opening of Bleak House. We do not get general treatments of the major novels; instead, the monthly or weekly instalments are discussed as separate acts of invention, each displaying its own switches of emphasis or technical innovations.
The method has its dangers, especially for readers who are less familiar with Dickens: it’s possible to get bogged down in the sections covering the early period when he was writing overlapping novels, or to wonder whether he is ever going to be finished with David Copperfield. For students of his work, however, the patient recording of the many elements that fed into each piece of writing will be valuable. And the method helps make it plain that nothing Dickens saw, read, heard or did went to waste. The actor William Macready described his ‘clutching eye’, whose least glance could teach him something. Slater provides some fine examples of this gift.
When it comes to the old biographical cruxes, Slater emphasises Dickens’s propensity to rewrite his own history. It’s not just that he exaggerated for effect, or that his memory shaped the past differently at different stages of his life. It’s that he seemed so entirely to believe that his revised versions were true. In a writer so marvellously aware of his characters’ delusory rhetoric about themselves, this is, as Slater might put it, a wonder. His awareness of Dickens’s tendency to retrospective pathos and self-pity marks the discussion of his stint as the working son of a debtor father. Slater is as willing to imagine good reasons for the parents’ decisions as he is to point to what might have been genuine in the child’s sadness and bewilderment, but he doesn’t turn the episode into the chapter-length study of formative trauma that has been the traditional practice of Dickens biographers. He concludes simply that ‘the figures of inadequate, or downright culpable, parents and hapless, innocent child-victims were deeply imprinted upon his imagination at this time and later became central to his fictional world.’
The autobiographical fragment was written in the late 1840s, when Dickens, in his mid-thirties, was a famous public figure. As Slater notes, the author ‘depicts his 12-year-old self primarily as a figure of intense pathos’, while also making himself seem at moments both heroic and streetwise. It’s not until later, when he writes about Dickens, seriously restless and depressed as he was in his early forties, beginning to plan Little Dorrit and its eponymous heroine, that Slater brings out the full significance of these memories to his later work. He also makes the point that Dickens delighted in using his past as a game of hide and seek with his readers. In the preface to Little Dorrit Dickens’s knowledge of the old Marshalsea Prison allows him to ‘share his most intimate secrets with his readers but in some coded fashion, to be understood only by himself’. Unexplained blacking bottles and brushes, meanwhile, are strewn about in odd corners of his fiction and journalism.
In Little Dorrit another often revised memory is made use of: Dickens’s youthful passion for the flirtatious but unavailable Maria Beadnell. Slater charts the phases: the ‘first extant retelling by Dickens of the Maria Beadnell affair’ is in an 1845 letter that exaggerates the duration of his suffering from two to ‘six or seven long years’. When Maria, now a widow called Maria Winter, contacted Dickens out of the blue in 1855, the writing of David Copperfield’s Dora five years earlier is transformed in his response: ‘in a highly characteristic revision of his own authorial history, he comes to believe, quite genuinely, that he had written those scenes not tenderly smiling but in searing pain’. The re-creation of Maria in Little Dorrit as the wonderful Flora Finching, mistress of the run-on sentence in which past and present are indistinguishable, is a stunning instance of Dickens’s fondness for reconfiguring his memory.
The theme culminates in Slater’s perfectly titled chapter ‘Writing Off a Marriage’, which analyses Dickens’s attempts to convince himself and others that a once reasonably affectionate marriage had been a failure from the start. Each stage of his autobiographical revision is traced in letters and public documents, as Dickens gradually manufactures a set of explanations that quite literally wrote Catherine out of his life. The story has often been told, but Slater’s version is compelling because he sees Dickens as representing the process of ejecting Catherine from his house and his mind through a series of literary fictions. Catherine appears as ‘a “humour” character out of Ben Jonson, dominated by the emotion of jealousy’, and is later transformed into a Bad Mother figure in a fairy tale. ‘Clearly it was important for him to get himself to believe it,’ Slater remarks, ‘as a way of enabling him to pity himself through pitying his children.’ His agitation also infected his political judgment. He felt about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 much as he felt about his wife. In a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, he wrote that he wished ‘to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested … to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth’. Slater wonders whether the sensational press reports of British women and children slaughtered at Cawnpore began ‘to resonate in Dickens’s mind with his image of Nelly [Ternan] and his fantasies about rescuing her from ogres’. I can’t help wondering here about Dickens’s cruelty to Catherine; that, too, was doubtless something he wished to erase from his knowledge of himself.
At this point in the biography – about two-thirds of the way through – Slater’s relationship with his subject undergoes a subtle shift, as he becomes more interested in the people who were caught up in Dickens’s strange blending of life with fiction and fantasy. His ten children appear only briefly (as they do in the letters), but Slater has no truck with the myth of domestic harmony. Dickens’s practice of naming his sons after literary figures is described as a ‘dedication of his sons to famous writers, as though they were books’; the constant pregnancies that wore Catherine down seemed for Dickens to be ‘events for which he had no responsibility’, though he did respond warmly to most of the babies when they arrived. Slater is scrupulous in assuming no more about Dickens’s relations with Ternan than the sparse evidence warrants, but he does ask us to imagine ‘the limbo-like existence she was now leading as a result of his take-over of her life’. He is forthright about Dickens’s unrelenting coldness to his mother and his wife. More centrally, his reading of Dickens’s late work – the novels, stories and the first-person journalism – show how far it reflects events in his life.
Dickens spent his last years in constant travel and increasing pain. He moved between his house, Gad’s Hill, and his offices in London, between London and unidentified villages in France where Ternan lived with her mother, between home and lengthy, exhausting reading tours throughout the United Kingdom and the United States. His heart was failing, his swollen left foot was hurting, and he zigzagged between the highs of cheering audiences and collapses onto the couch, fortified by sherry mixed with egg yolk. Disturbed by the Staplehurst rail accident in 1865, he became an anxious traveller – at least on trains. At public readings he wore himself out emotionally by performing Sikes’s murder of Nancy, over and over. It would be easy to end his biography in a whirl of melodrama. With his eye always on the unstoppable inventiveness of Dickens’s writing, Slater avoids doing so.
For Victorian audiences and for Dickens’s earliest biographer-critics – John Forster, George Gissing and Chesterton – Dickens’s humour was the essence of his genius and the source of his realism. It was not until the mid 20th century that his ‘dark’ side became fashionable, largely in the wake of Edmund Wilson’s essay ‘Dickens: The Two Scrooges’ (1940), which told of a Dickens traumatised by the blacking warehouse and obsessed with murderers, prisons and social revenge. The title of Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952), reflects the mood of the time. In 1990, Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens showed a man inseparable from the London streets. Slater’s Dickens has more in common with the Victorian version of the writer as someone who delighted in his own powers, and communicated an infectious laughter and sorrow to his public. Concentrating on Dickens’s long affair with his audience, Slater pays attention to work that’s rarely read now, though it wowed 19th-century readers and brought in fine sales figures. He also seems to take special pleasure in talking about his comic writing.
As the end of each year approached, Dickens turned from whatever he was writing to plan and produce a special Christmas number for Household Words or, after 1858, for All the Year Round. The tradition had begun with A Christmas Carol (1843), but it sometimes became a less than successful chore – often Dickens just wrote a frame tale to which other writers would (under his prodding) contribute appropriate stories. In the 1860s, however, Dickens struck gold with the humorous narrative voices of Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings, its sequel, Mrs Lirriper’s Legacy, and Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions. Slater’s delight in these works is evident: Mrs Lirriper is ‘one of Dickens’s most successful depictions of a good woman, hidden away now in a little read minor work … a Dickens novel in miniature’. The portrayal of the ebullient cheapjack Dr Marigold achieves ‘a greater intensity of pathos than anything Dickens had hitherto attempted in this genre … arguably surpassing even Tiny Tim’. The emphasis on this renewal continues to the end, with the comic figures of Septimus Crisparkle and Stony Durdles in the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.