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.
John Sutherland has added them up: there have now been at least 90 biographies. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens comes just two years after Michael Slater’s excellent Charles Dickens, the first to benefit from the complete 12-volume British Academy Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters and Slater’s own editions of Dickens’s journalism. But Slater is a career Dickensian, not a popular biographer. His first sentence investigating ‘the earliest specimens of any writing by Charles Dickens of which we have a record’ – ‘a formal invitation and a facetious schoolboy letter’ – can’t compete with Tomalin’s Bleak House-ian ‘14 January 1840, London. An inquest is being held at Marylebone Workhouse.’ A terrified servant girl is accused of killing her baby. Charles Dickens is in the jury box. What follows is Dickens at his ‘best as a man’, sending ‘food and other comforts’ to the prisoner and hiring a barrister to defend her. He saves her life, but is too busy writing The Old Curiosity Shop to gloat.
Tomalin admires Dickens’s industry and charitable works, but won’t be seduced. She won’t follow Forster, who ‘like most biographers … was too ready to invest his subject with all the virtues’. Tomalin’s Dickens is the consummate Victorian – that is, a hypocrite. He created a charity to reform prostitutes, to which he was devoted, though all along, Tomalin suggests, he may have slept with them. There’s no evidence he did, but Tomalin reads a great deal into a letter he wrote to a friend: ‘There are conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) and I know where they live.’ And she points to the ‘most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour’, as recorded in a letter supposedly written by Dostoevsky:
The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it’s the author’s own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine … in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself).
Tomalin is right that this would be an extraordinary admission. The trouble is that there is no evidence Dickens ever met Dostoevsky. Tomalin’s only source for the letter, or for the meeting, comes from an article in the Dickensian: A Magazine for Dickens Lovers. In 2002 Stephanie Harvey claimed to have translated the letter from a Russian journal which seems not to have existed. Dostoevsky scholars don’t think their man ever met Dickens, and neither the letter nor the translator is to be found. Tomalin acknowledged in the Sunday Times that she may have fallen for a hoax. She might have been less susceptible had she not so badly wanted it to be true.
In The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990), Tomalin argued that Nelly Ternan was more central to Dickens’s life than other biographers had supposed, and in many ways this biography feels like a return to that project. The quiet young actress who kept Dickens company in the last years of his life here becomes the most important person he knew. Dickens met her and, as Tomalin imagines it, ‘the wing of a butterfly flapped, and a whole weather system was unsettled.’ The self he had spent a lifetime creating – the kindly paterfamilias with twinkling eyes – disintegrated; his friends were appalled.
Slater and Peter Ackroyd, looking at the same letters and bills of fare, the same reminiscences of children and admirers, aren’t convinced Dickens ever slept with Nelly Ternan, but Tomalin’s Dickens is so virile (those ten children): of course he did. We know little about what Nelly was like (few of her letters survive, and none to Dickens), but Edmund Wilson thought that she might have been the model for Estella, frigid and indifferent, torturing Pip ‘against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be’ – until she yielded. Tomalin doesn’t pretend to see obvious traces of Nelly in the novels; her interest is elsewhere. She can’t prove that Nelly and Dickens had a child, she admits, but she thinks they did: Gladys Storey, a friend of Dickens’s daughter Katey, once said that there may have been a child, a boy, who died shortly after birth. No evidence, no matter how apparently unyielding, seems to have gone unmarshalled. Dickens made several trips to France in the early 1860s, and though ‘there is no proof that it was Nelly who took Dickens to France the summer of 1862, or that the reason for her being in France was that she was pregnant,’ there’s nothing to prove she wasn’t, ergo, she may well have been, which would explain the lack of any English birth records. On 18 December 1862, Dickens wrote from France to his assistant editor on All the Year Round, William Wills: ‘I want a £50 note for a special purpose. Will you send me one by return of post?’ To Tomalin this ‘sounds like money for Nelly, or for a doctor and a nurse’: she doesn’t explain why.
In The Invisible Woman, Tomalin’s Dickens dies at Gad’s Hill in Kent, as he does in every biography until now. ‘Suddenly he rose to his feet, saying he wished to go to London at once. Then he collapsed on the floor, muttering.’ Now Tomalin suggests, out of the blue, that he actually died at Nelly’s house in Peckham. For if he had, might not Nelly, to protect her reputation and Dickens’s, have taken the dead or dying man to Gad’s Hill, perhaps in a hackney cab, so that he wouldn’t be discovered with her? ‘It seems a wild and improbable story, but not an entirely impossible one,’ Tomalin decides. There was ‘£6.6s.3d. in the pockets of his suit after his death. Given that he had cashed a cheque for £22 on the morning of 8 June, where did the £15.13s. 9d. go?’ And Tomalin imagines the entire scene:
Dickens left for Higham Station after he had cashed the cheque with Mr Trood and made the familiar journey by train and cab to Peckham. At Windsor Lodge he gave Nelly her housekeeping money. Sometime after this he collapsed. Nelly, with the help of her maids, of the good-natured caretaker of the church opposite – sworn to secrecy – and of a hackney cabman, got the unconscious man into a big two-horse brougham supplied by the local job-master, used to driving Nelly and Dickens, and drove with him to Gad’s Hill.
And suddenly, mid-sentence, the subjunctive is dropped: ‘Getting an inert or semi-conscious man into Gad’s Hill would be a problem, but it was managed.’ There were many servants working at the house that day, but just because they didn’t report seeing Nelly come in with a body doesn’t mean she didn’t; they might have lied or simply been working in another part of the house. And, in a footnote: ‘The dogs, if they were about, would have recognised Nelly,’ as ‘they never forgot anyone they had been introduced to’ – just another curious incident in the night-time.
Tomalin writes the best sentences of any recent Dickens biographer, and her vision of what almost certainly didn’t happen becomes more vivid than the scenario that almost certainly did: Dickens collapsed at home after feeling unwell. The £15.13s.9d. could have paid for any number of things. But if Tomalin’s account is true, Nelly Ternan was a more interesting woman than even Tomalin proposes. She is fantastically resourceful; she never calls for a doctor.
Douglas-Fairhurst’s book, which restricts itself to the period before Dickens became famous, mentions Nelly Ternan only once, in passing. He’s more interested in Mary Hogarth, Catherine Hogarth’s younger sister, who died, aged 17, in Dickens’s arms, after only a few hours of illness. They had all come back from the theatre; she had seemed fine. She seemed not to have mattered much to Dickens until she died, but death made her perfect: ‘I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed. I knew her inmost heart, and her real worth and value. She had not a fault.’ Her ‘pleasant smile and those sweet words which, bestowed upon an evening’s work in our merry banterings round the fire, were more precious to me than the applause of a whole world would be. I can recall everything she said and did in those happy days, and could show you every passage and line we read together.’
Dickens was 25, and just coming into his success, simultaneously finishing The Pickwick Papers and beginning Oliver Twist. But he stopped both, mid-serial, even though he was in debt. In an apology to his readers, he claims to have lost one ‘whose society has been, for long time the chief solace of his labours’. He saved a lock of her hair, and began to wear the ring she was wearing when she died. He never took it off, ‘by day or by night, except for an instant at a time, to wash my hands, since she died. I have never had her sweetness and excellence absent from my mind so long. I can solemnly say that, waking or sleeping, I have never lost the recollection of our hard trial and sorrow, and I feel that I never shall.’ For years, he claimed that he dreamed about her every night, and woke up weeping. He visited Niagara Falls, and was convinced she was there with him. He wouldn’t let her clothes be thrown out. Dickens’s wife miscarried a baby when her sister died, but Dickens wouldn’t allow her suffering to compete with his own; he described her to friends as ‘so calm and cheerful that I wonder to see her’. Catherine got older; she got fat; and Dickens couldn’t forgive her for looking less like her sister every year.
When Catherine’s mother and younger brother died, Dickens was angry that they were to share Mary’s grave, leaving no room for him. ‘It is a great trial to me to give up Mary’s grave; greater than I can possibly express … The desire to be buried next to her is as strong upon me now, as it was five years ago; and I know (for I don’t think there ever was love like I bear her) that it will never diminish. I fear I can do nothing. Do you think I can?’ He couldn’t bear the thought of being ‘excluded from her dust’; ‘it seems like losing her a second time.’ For Mary’s epitaph, he wrote that she was ‘young, beautiful and good’; and when he went back to Oliver Twist, he created Rose Maylie, ‘not past 17’, ‘so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; that earth seemed not her element’. She gets sick, very suddenly; she nearly dies. ‘When the young, the beautiful, and good, are visited with sickness, their pure spirits insensibly turn towards their bright home of lasting rest.’ But Rose Maylie doesn’t die: the novelist can save her! And when Dickens created Little Nell, and Forster convinced him to kill her off to make the story better, he remembered how it felt to lose Mary, and he grieved for her again: ‘It is such a very painful thing to me, that I really cannot express my sorrow. Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of doing it … Dear Mary died yesterday, when I think of this sad story.’ When he met Nelly Ternan, he was 45 to her 18: he would try to begin where he left off.
Tomalin thinks that Dickens’s novels are ‘undermined by his inability to present real women’, by his refusal to acknowledge female sexuality: ‘He could not bring himself to write truthfully on this subject, or … he did not know how to.’ She has no patience with the passive virgins Dickens chooses for his heroines and compares Dickens unfavourably to the subject of her previous biography, Thomas Hardy. But Dickens didn’t think he was being untruthful: his model was Mary, though he didn’t realise he was copying a copy, one he had fashioned himself. When he writes to Forster of ‘that spirit which directs my life, and … has pointed upwards with unchanging finger for more than four years past’, she has become David Copperfield’s Agnes: ‘She was so beautiful, she was so good.’ The bad wife dies, and David is free to marry the excellent woman he almost didn’t appreciate until too late, ‘ever pointing upward, Agnes; ever leading me to something better; ever directing me to higher things!’
Michael Slater argued that Mary Hogarth’s few surviving letters are ‘surely those of quite an exceptional 16 or 17-year-old’. And though nothing about them suggests they weren’t written by an ordinary teenager (‘I have just returned home from spending a most delightfully happy month with Catherine in her new house!’), for Slater they ‘remind one of Mrs Gaskell’s’. Slater also wants her to be beautiful, even though the only picture of her shows, as Slater acknowledges, ‘an insipid young creature with rather a bulging forehead, rather a large nose, a little rosebud mouth and a rounded receding chin’; Slater decides that the artist was almost certainly unfair, and Dickens was ‘not, in fact, exaggerating Mary’s charms’. Douglas-Fairhurst knows better. A girl died and Dickens posthumously created her character just as he would create any of the people who populate his novels. Goodness was rare but possible; he compared not just his wife but himself to Mary, and always fell short.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.