What the Dickens

F.S. Schwarzbach

On 25 May 1851 Dickens wrote no fewer than 11 letters – or perhaps it is better to say that 11 of those he wrote have survived. Several were only a line or two, declining an invitation to a public dinner at the Royal Literary Fund, thanking a theatre manager for the use of the stage for rehearsals of his amateur players, and the like. But most were substantial: a few involved business relating to the Guild of Literature and Art, a sort of union and mutual aid society for authors that Dickens was then busy launching; one thanked a Sheffield firm (innocently mentioned in David Copperfield) for the gift of a set of knives; another attempted to patch up his lapsed friendship with George Cruikshank, who had probably been offended by Dickens’s attacks on his temperance pamphlets; another was a long, newsy report to a Swiss friend he hadn’t seen in years and one more thanked a Scottish author for sending a book of literary lectures. All in all, a busy but not an untypical day.

These were three busy years, and productive ones. As 1850 began, Dickens was halfway through David Copperfield, and as 1852 ended half-done with Bleak House. In those same years he founded and edited a weekly journal, Household Words, and wrote or collaborated on about a hundred articles, essays and stories for it – nearly one a week. Included among these were his Child’s History of England and several long Christmas stories.

So much for writing. But Dickens was busy in other ways as well, helping to found the Guild of Literature and Art, and attempting to create for it an endowment by producing, directing and acting lead roles in an ‘amateur’ theatrical company to give benefit performances for it. The company was in fact all but professional, giving a private performance for the Queen and public ones several times in London and on three provincial tours (the last in seven cities). One of the two plays in the repertoire was a farce Dickens co-authored for the occasion with Mark Lemon. All the while Dickens continued his management of Urania Cottage, Angela Burdett Coutts’s home for the reformation of prostitutes, supervising it daily on the most minute matters. He was constantly visiting magistrate’s courts, prisons and other likely places to interview prospective inmates, and appears to have vetted every new woman personally. In 1852 he also began working with Miss Coutts to purchase a site on which to erect cheap housing for working people, a project which eventually developed into a large housing estate at Columbia Square in Bethnal Green. (The name survives, but the buildings were demolished not long ago.) And all the while there were speaking engagements.

This frenetic activity went on in the midst of other important events in his life. Two children were born, the first, Dora, dying suddenly at the age of eight months. Only a fortnight before that his father, John Dickens, had died after enduring a horrifying surgical operation (while his son looked on) without the benefit of anesthesia. His wife suffered for some time from a ‘nervous’ condition, perhaps post-natal depression, or perhaps simply exhaustion. In 1851 he moved house, which involved virtually gutting and reconstructing the new residence in Tavistock Square, where the offices of the London Review now stand. Dickens wrote almost daily for weeks to provide his instructions (including construction of a cold shower). And, as 1852 drew to a close, three of his closest friends died.

There were also, inter alia, Dickens’s pastimes: constant visits to the theatre (marathon programmes then, which might last five or six hours); visits to friends’ homes round the country; longer excursions to Paris; family removals to Broadstairs or Dover in the summer; tours of schools, factories or other places that might be worked up into a Household Words article; increasingly grand formal dinners at home (Mrs Gaskell reported that she dined off gold plate at Tavistock House); and, always, the long walks, often at night. One such jaunt he proposed to a friend was to include Hendon and Highgate and back again, a circuit of about twenty statute miles, hardly an unusual distance for him. Such a round of recreational activities might have killed a lesser spirit – for Dickens they were relief from the rigours of writing.

And somehow Dickens also found the time to write the 1600 letters collected here, 641 published for the first time, others reprinted from obscure periodicals, and the texts of many significantly corrected. This latest instalment of the Pilgrim Letters is as meticulously edited, copiously annotated and faultlessly produced as its predecessors:

Nearly half of the 14,000 letters known to the Pilgrim editors are now in print. Do these letters give us an entirely new Dickens? The answer is, in the main, no. The great revelation, about his mistress Ellen Ternan, came in the Thirties, and while many other bits and pieces of information are emerging in the Pilgrim, there has been nothing of equal importance since. That is not to say that there is nothing of biographical importance here. For one thing, never before have we had so powerful a sense of that frenetic activity of his. Take, for example, those amateur theatricals. Dickens handled everything, from selecting the plays, editing them for performance, casting the roles, choosing the music, designing the theatre (a prefabricated stage that could be erected in any large open room), finding costumes, arranging rehearsals and directing at them.

This before a single performance had taken place. During the performances he was no less in command. As he wrote to an old acquaintance during one of the tours, explaining why he could not get away for a short friendly visit: ‘I am on the stage all day, rehearsing with everybody, from breakfast until dinner. I preside at all the meals ... and carve all the large joints. We carry into the country a perfect army of carpenters, gasmen, tailors, barbers, property-men, dressers, and servants; all of whom have become accustomed to do everything with the utmost precision and accuracy under the Magisterial eye, but none of whom would do anything right, if that luminary were withdrawn from any of them for five minutes at a stretch.’ In addition, he went on, he had personally to see dozens of disappointed ‘impossible people’ demanding seats which were already all sold, and perform himself, playing two parts he reckoned longer ‘than the whole play of Hamlet’ and involving 14 changes of costume. And Dickens was also at this very moment writing and publishing the monthly parts of Bleak House, continuing his editorial labours on Household Worlds, and running Urania Cottage.

How can anyone have done so much? Part of the answer is by being very, very orderly in his working habits. Thus the great distress occasioned by moving house: ‘You may faintly picture to yourself how low this makes the undersigned,’ he wrote a friend during the worst of it, ‘who is accustomed to keep everying belonging to him in a place of its own, and to sit in the midst of a system of Order.’ So disrupted were his working habits that the publication of Bleak House was pushed back from summer 1851 to February 1852. His usual routine seems to have been to work from breakfast until two in the afternoon, and only when absolutely necessary did he deny himself the pleasures of evening company or entertainment.

If that explains the how of it, we are still left to puzzle out the why. It takes no great psychological perspicacity to see that the obsession with order was closely related to a passion for control. The two went hand in hand: perhaps he realised this, referring to himself in one letter as ‘the Punctual Inimitable B[oz]’, orderly and irresistible all at once. Beginning to plan still another amateur theatrical event, he wrote: ‘I am in the business, heart and soul ... I wouldn’t go into such a thing – or anything – halfway ... for any earthly consideration.’ Whatever he did he did with furious passion, and there could be no project he collaborated on of which he was not master.

The letters hint that he kept so busy to fend off the demons that idleness might let loose. One of the most remarkable series of letters is to Emmely Gotschalk, evidently a young Danish woman about whom nothing else is known. We can guess from the letters that she wrote to Dickens expressing despair and gloom about life, religion and herself. For some reason Dickens let down his guard writing to her, and admits that her own morbid journeys touch closely upon ground he too had trod. So, in one, he advises: ‘If we all sat down to brood on death, this scene of Duty would become a dismal place ... I apprehend it is because we are placed here to work (all of us in our spheres of action can work, whatever those spheres be) that it is so natural to us to dismiss the contemplation of that end that must come in the fullness of God’s time ... Action, in an earnest spirit, is the refuge from Gloomy thoughts.’

Dickens has always, at least since Forster’s great biography in the 1870s, seemed larger than life, and now when the Pilgrim is complete he will probably seem larger still. We are not, these days, much disposed to admire imperial egos like his, more likely to see them as monstrous than as laudable. Yet the man we see here is one more tormented than we have been used to think, and for that reason more sympathetic as well.

What the complete Letters does to change our understanding of Dickens’s fiction is another matter. If the standard against which all literary correspondence must be judged is Keats’s letters, then Dickens’s are barely even second-rate. He hardly ever discusses his writing, except either to complain about not having the time to do it, or being unable to do it even though he has the time, or (more rarely) exclaiming that he has written something and it is extremely nice, or the best thing yet, or something equally vague. Talking about others’ writing, he is not much better: he can be quite precise about specific changes to improve a tale or essay, but when discussing writing in the abstract he usually falls back on cliché. Trying to pressure Mrs Gaskell into changing the ending of a ghost story she’d written for Household Words, he thunders: ‘I have no doubt, according to every principle of art that is known to me from Shakespeare downwards, that you weaken the terror of the story’ – by not accepting his revisions. Anyone looking for Jamesian metacritical discourse will be very disappointed.

Between the lines, however, there’s evidence of how the stuff of daily life found its way into the fiction. The gestation period of Bleak House, prolonged beyond his intentions by the delayed move to Tavistock Square, is a case in point. A good example of how his mind digested and finally used such material is his response over time to the Report on a General Scheme for Extramural Sepulture, issued by Chadwick’s General Board of Health and given him by his brother-in-law, Henry Austin, a sanitary engineer. The document presented yet again the horrors of overcrowded urban graveyards, a subject with which Dickens was familiar, having the magnum opus of G.A. Walker (‘Walker of the Graveyards’) already on his bookshelves. On 27 February 1850 he thanks Austin for it, calls it ‘extraordinarily interesting’, and adds: ‘I began to read it last night in bed – and dreamed of putefraction [sic] generally.’ He must, however, have passed it on to his sub-editor on Household Words, W.H. Wills, who in March incorporated material from it in an essay for the magazine. Some months later, in the manuscript of Chapter 54 of Copperfield, Dickens mentioned that Betsey Trotwood’s husband was interred in the burial-ground of St Martin’s in the Fields, one of those overcrowded (though then already disused) church graveyards; he changed it before publication to a suburban cemetery in Hornsey.

But by the time Bleak House was under way two years later, urban graveyards had moved to the very centre of his fictional imagination. That same burial-ground off Drury Lane serves in the novel as the type of all such horrors, and one of many symbols of the neglect of pressing social problems by all duly constituted authorities. Here the body of Nemo, Lady Dedlock’s former lover and Esther Summerson’s father, is shoved into a fetid, corpse-filled ditch, only to fester into the source of the infection which strikes Jo and Lady Dedlock dead and scars Esther permanently. In the meantime other bits and pieces had been fitted to the puzzle: a visit to a Ragged School, and seeing there a dying boy, was probably the germ of the idea of Jo; Miss Coutts’s plan to erect decent housing in the East End lay behind some of the descriptions of indecent slum housing in Tom-all-Alone’s; and the deaths of his daughter and father involved him personally in the scandalous state of London’s cemeteries. Yet, for all the fascination there is in tracing the way in which the events of quotidian life ended in the novels, there is nothing in the letters that Dickens wrote to suggest anything of the power and genius of the books that he wrote.

There are nonetheless several interesting new letters in the volume which do bear upon writing itself. Having been shown a volume of poems with a long explanatory preface, he doubted the ‘expediency’ of explaining the verse before presenting it: ‘His writing should explain itself; rest manfully and calmly on its knowledge of itself; and express whatever intention and purpose are in him.’ Rejecting a story for Household Words, he remarks of the characters: ‘It is not enough to say that they were this, or that. They must show it for themselves.’ He counselled a would-be writer that ‘Fiction’ could not ‘be written easily. Patience, attention, seclusion, consideration, courage to reject what comes uppermost, and to try for something better below it’, were necessary. Finally, in response to complaints about what were termed frivolous attacks on charities in Bleak House, he wrote ‘Pray do not ... be induced to suppose that I ever write merely to amuse, or without an object ... Without it, my pursuit – and the steadiness, patience, seclusion, regularity, hard work, and self-concentration, it demands – would be utterly worthless to me. I should die at the oar, and could die a more contemptible and worthless death in no man’s eyes than my own.’