A Terrible Bad Cold

John Sutherland

  • Dickens by Peter Ackroyd
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 1195 pp, £19.95, September 1990, ISBN 1 85619 000 5

In the manner of old Hollywood movies, biographies like to open at a terminal point and then flash back to the start of things. It is a device that stakes out the territory while creating a sense of overall shape – something that even famous lives lack in the day-to-day business of living. Fred Kaplan’s 1988 life of Dickens began with the vivid scene of his incinerating ‘every letter he owned not on a business matter’ in a bonfire at his Gad’s Hill garden. What Kaplan ruefully implied by opening with the manuscript holocaust of 1860 was that there was a core of Dickens’s life which we would never know. Dickens laboured tirelessly to make himself publicly famous and at the same time to bury the private Dickens beyond all exhumation. He largely succeeded thanks to his own vandalism and Forster’s loyal destructions and suppressions. We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.

Kaplan’s is an academic’s view of things. For him and his university-based colleagues biographies, like legal cases, are built on the hard evidence of literary remains and interviewable eye-witnesses. No Aspern papers, no Aspern biography. Ackroyd, who is not an academic, thinks otherwise. His life of Dickens opens with the great man dead, lying on the green sofa in the dining-room of Gad’s Hill Place. But Ackroyd does not regard his subject across any fence: he knows Dickens as intimately as the man knew himself; better, perhaps, since Dickens was not great on self-knowledge. There are no lost keys, no closed doors. Ackroyd, for instance, can read the expression on the dead Dickens face on the narrow green sofa. The expression is childlike: ‘It was the look he recorded in William Dorrit’s face in death; it was the look which he saw in the faces of the corpses on view in the Paris Morgue. This connection between death and infancy is one that had haunted him; sleep, repose, death, infancy, innocence, oblivion are the words that formed a circle for him, bringing him back to the place from which he had begun. Here in Gad’s Hill, close to the town in which he had lived as a small child, here in the house which his father had once shown him; here the circle was complete.’

A sceptic might ask how Peter Ackroyd knows that Dickens’s face bore an infantile look in death? No one there seems to have recorded the fact. Was Ackroyd, like Scrooge, transported to the room by the spirit of biography past? How does Ackroyd know that Dickens’s final mental state was one of mellow fruition, the circle completed? Witnesses report that Dickens – who suffered a cerebral haemorrhage – expired in a state of miserable confusion and exasperation. If he had to die in 1870, would he not have chosen the end of the year, when Edwin Drood was completed?

The media preparation for this biography has been intense. Sinclair-Stevenson’s expert publicists have hammered away at the theme of Britain’s greatest living novelist versus Britain’s greatest ever novelist as if it were a literary Godzilla meets King Kong. Ackroyd understands Dickens better than pettifogging academics because Ackroyd, like his subject, is a creative genius, and such minds are privileged to think alike. Ackroyd himself makes this claim, if rather more tactfully than his publicity. Biographies, as he asserts in his opening and closing remarks, should be agents of ‘true knowledge’ and ‘real knowledge’ and this is gained by inspired intuition, mystical inwardness. Ackroyd, we apprehend, is close to – even at times inside – Dickens in ways that mere letters, diaries or memoranda could never permit. ‘I wanted to understand him,’ he says: ‘in that sense Dickens was like a character in a novel I might write – I never like or dislike any of the characters I have created. I simply try to understand them and, in understanding them, to bring them to life.’ Ackroyd understands Dickens, then, as Dickens might understand Micawber. Thou, Ackroyd, seest him.

Ackroyd intrudes his supra-academic credentials on the reader during the course of the narrative. There are seven free-wheeling interludes or inter-chapters. The first fantasises a meeting between Dickens and Little Dorrit. He tells her that his father, too, was incarcerated in the Marshalsea. Brief complications ensue. The third interlude imagines a conversation between Chatterton, Wilde, T.S. Eliot and Dickens – all Ackroydian subjects (‘William Blake will be joining us shortly,’ Chatterton says). The fifth interlude recounts a face-to-face meeting between Dickens and Ackroyd (‘Some of my best friends are biographers,’ Dickens says. It’s the wittiest line he has in the book). In the seventh and last interlude, Ackroyd records a sinister dream he had of Dickens while writing the biography.

These interludes allow Ackroyd to emerge as himself, the novelist and creative writer, unfettered for a moment by the drudgery of the biographical task. He also employs an opposite device by which he occasionally becomes Dickens as he writes about Dickens. Particularly at the beginnings of his chapters, Ackroyd adopts a Bleak House staccato, as a virtuoso might pick up a rival’s Stradivarius and plunk out a phrase. Chapter Three opens:

London. The Great Oven. The Fever Patch. Babylon. The Great Wen. In the early autumn of 1822 the ten-year-old Charles Dickens entered his kingdom.

At any moment of excitement Ackroyd is prone to such ventriloquism. He does not describe the squalor of Warren’s Thames-side blacking factory – he feels it and bang goes the grammar again:

This is the haunted place of his imagination. Dampness. Ruin. Rottenness. Rats, familiar to him from the books he read and stories he heard. Woodworm. The smell of decay. And beside it the river, the Thames which flows through his fiction just as it flowed through the city itself.

There’s a strong whiff of Emlyn Williams ham in all this and one reaches for Trollope’s prissy ‘Of Dickens’s style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules ... No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens.’ It doesn’t come off here and Ackroyd shouldn’t have done it.

The most informative of the interludes is the sixth, where Ackroyd the novelist cross-examines Ackroyd the biographer. ‘Are there any particular virtues to this biography?’ Al inquires. ‘Well,’ replies A2, ‘the first thing to say is that it is very thoroughly researched ... I even made a point of reading all the books about Dickens and in most cases, reading them right the way through.’ Doesn’t that make the biography ‘too academic’? Al objects. It’s a problem, A2 concedes:

I also have a nasty habit of taking scholars, or perhaps I should say academics, too seriously. Take the example of the footnotes. I was determined not to have any at all but then, in the last stages of composition, my nerve failed. I certainly did not intend to sit down and list every source for every quotation but I did compromise: I wrote little essays on my sources for each chapter.

There is, I think, confusion here. Reading books about Dickens is not research – or at least not primary research. Ackroyd may have been conscientious, but what he has done is to review, and use, the research of others – mainly academics. Citing those scholars’ efforts is not, as he alleges, a ‘derelict and now often farcical practice’ but common honesty. Not that Ackroyd is in any sense dishonest, but he is trapped in the contradiction of being Dickens’s Boswell and Dickens’s ‘creator’ – a contradiction inherent in the different arts of biography and fiction. Novelists should be original and inimitable, only begetters. Novels which are like other novels are necessarily inferior novels. The same is not necessarily true of literary biography, which, for good or ill, is nowadays dominated by academics and their procedures. Academics conceive themselves as working co-operatively. The reason they acknowledge each other’s efforts in footnotes and annotate sources is not mindless obedience to a derelict and farcical practice but a recognition that theirs is a professional team effort. They are not solitary geniuses, like Dickens or Ackroyd (A1).

There is the other liability that Ackroyd (A2) is rather late in the field. The degree of originality which the 37th full-length biography of Dickens can have is limited. Forster may be, as Ackroyd condescendingly says, ‘very dull’ and Edgar Johnson ‘awfully wrong-headed’, but they got in well before he did. The pool has been comprehensively scooped. Forster got first dibs on the blacking factory episode. Thomas Wright broke the Ellen Ternan scandal. Edgar Johnson had first go at the Burdett-Coutts material. And the editors of the Pilgrim Edition of the letters have forbidden Ackroyd from quoting anything other than ‘occasional and brief phrases from Dickens’s unpublished correspondence’ (i.e. the bulk of letters after 1852).

In these circumstances, Ackroyd’s biography is bound to conform in its main outline with other biographies. It may revolt his artistic conscience, but great gobs of unoriginality are unavoidable if he is going to write anything resembling a reliable account. And certainly there is a feel at times of Ackroyd’s chewing-gum having lost its flavour on the bedpost overnight. Take, for instance, Ackroyd’s description of Dickens’s birth, and Kaplan’s:

Charles Dickens was born on the seventh of February 1812, the year of victory and the year of hardship. He came crying into the world in a small first-floor bedroom in an area known as New Town or Mile End, just on the outskirts of Portsmouth where his father, John Dickens, worked in the Naval Pay Office. His mother, Elizabeth, is reported to have claimed that she went to a ball on the night before his birth; but no ball is mentioned in the area for that particular evening and it is likely that this is one of the many apocryphal stories which sprung up around the birth and development of the great writer. He was born on a Friday, on the same day as his young hero David Copperfield, and for ever afterwards Friday became for him a day of omen ...

Born in Portsmouth on Friday, February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was the second child of a slim, dark-haired, pretty woman. On the night of his birth, Elizabeth Dickens, who apparently liked to act the part of an invalid, and, like her son, loved to dance, had attended a ball. She was a woman of energetic, aggressive self-definition. His father, who made his living as a clerk in the payroll office of the navy ... proudly took the unusual step of trumpeting in the local newspaper that unto him had been born ‘on Friday, at Mile End Terrace, the Lady of John Dickens, Esq, a son’ ... As an adult, Charles Dickens considered Friday his lucky day.

Less tentative than Ackroyd, Kaplan entitles his chapter ‘The Hero of my own Life’. I don’t for a moment think that Ackroyd is copying Kaplan. But they are both of them drawing from the same sources and their results are inevitably similar. A new opening in Dickens biography, one assumes, is as hard a thing as a new opening in Grand Master chess.

Variations in the middle and endgame are possible. Ackroyd follows orthodox Forsterian explanation in seeing Warren’s blacking factory and Marshalsea as traumatic and formative of Dickens’s adult personality. But he reconstructs – or invents – the atmosphere of the warehouse and the prison magnificently. Ackroyd’s scene painting – particularly of London Gothic – is consistently brilliant. And his description of metropolitan sordidness staining young Charles’s mind is convincing. Mud and blacking, Ackroyd argues, are the basic pigments of Dickensianism. The point is conveyed by writing which rivals its subject’s.

As he traces the familiar outlines of Dickens’s subsequent history Ackroyd’s originality typically appears as a recklessness of interpretation, a going the whole hog where others have trodden lightly. Take, for instance, the crossroads in Dickens’s early career when he was invited for a stage audition at Covent Garden in 1832. He himself evidently liked to point to this moment as one of the great might-have-beens of English history. Had he gone to the theatre that day, Charles Dickens would have become an actor and not a novelist. But, happy accident, there intervened ‘a terrible bad cold’, the audition was called off and Dickens was spared for literature. Forster mildly declares in an endnote that Dickens rather ‘over-stressed’ the likelihood of his becoming an actor in 1832. He thought that his friend was never really drawn to the stage, and that the cold may been a Bunburyism. Following this cue, Fred Kaplan suggests that the cold probably had its source in ‘ambivalence and stage fright’. He makes little of it. In dealing with the same episode, Ackroyd comes on like Carlyle writing about Frederick the Great:

  Never can there have been a more fortunate illness ... Somehow Dickens knew – or at least his body knew – that this was not the life for which he was intended. There is in great artists a secret momentum that always draws them forward so that they can ride over obstacles and avoid sidetracks without even realising they are doing so – so it was with Dickens. Whether it be called a power of will or of ambition, whether it is a form of self-awareness or even of self-ignorance, there was something which ineluctably led him forward to his proper destination.

The average Englishman, I have heard, catches two and a half colds a year. Ackroyd mentions one other of Dickens’s, which he contracted while writing Bleak House. It, too, suggests that the Victorian virus never struck randomly: ‘Gustave Flaubert used to say that he suffered with his characters even as he created them, that he became invaded by nervous anxiety at the same time as his characters, and even shared in the agony induced by the arsenic poisoning of Emma Bovary. Dickens’s symptoms were not so severe but he did manage to contract a very bad cold at the time he was consigning Esther Summerson to a bout of smallpox.’

Of course there is such a thing as psychosomatic illness, but sometimes a cold is just a cold. Ackroyd, with his god-like presumption that he is creating Dickens, will not have it so. ‘There is really no such thing as coincidence,’ he tells us (in the context of Ellen Ternan’s having been born in Rochester, ‘the very place which was at the centre of Dickens’s imagination’). All the accidents and contingency of Dickens’s life – even his sniffles – are thus bent to the ironwork of ‘destiny’. It may make for ornately-patterned novels but it is a dangerous theory on which to base biography, especially the biography of a man whose life has as many unpredictable turns as Dickens’s.

There are other occasions when Ackroyd presses too hard on his evidence. On the matter of Dickens-the-man’s sense of humour, for instance:

Once in the company of Chauncy Hare Townshend he was touring an asylum for the deaf-and-dumb and, when a poor afflicted boy seemed to Townshend to be trying to repeat his name, Dickens laughed out loud at the man’s well-meaning presumption. He laughed at another friend’s ‘ridiculous confusion’ when he lost his luggage, and he said of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes: ‘They really are the ugliest couple in London.’ When that same Lewes contributed a series of articles on the theme of ‘Success in Literature’, Dickens was heard to say: ‘Success in literature? What on earth does George Lewes know about success in literature?’ So Dickens had sarcasm as well as wit.

Is this really a catalogue of ‘wit’? It strikes me as banal and cruel. If Dickens did really jeer at George Eliot for being ugly and at Lewes for not making as much money as he did, I don’t laugh with him. I suppose a friend losing his bags and his self-possession might raise a giggle, but it hardly seems evidence of any wonderful sense of humour or power of wit.

The most revisionary aspect of Ackroyd’s Dickens is in its treatment of Ellen Ternan. The background is well-known. Forster does not mention that while separating from his wife in 1858, Dickens was involved with the young actress and remained involved with her for the rest of his life. The story was broken by Wright in his 1935 biography of Dickens. Wright – drawing on oral testimony – claimed that Dickens had forced himself on an unwilling Ellen, whose resistance inspired Estella’s frigidity in Great Expectations. This insight was adopted uncritically by Edgar Johnson in his authoritative 1952 biography: ‘There is reason for believing that Dickens had won Ellen against her will, wearing down her resistance by sheer force of desperate determination, and that her conscience never ceased to reproach her.’ It was, Johnson guessed, around 1863 that Ellen’s ‘obduracy at last gave way’. Kaplan, in his 1988 biography, deduces a much less neurotic affair, one in which there was neither obduracy nor wearing down. According to Kaplan, the Ternan-Dickens relation ‘became an intimate one, probably by late 1857 or 1858. By Victorian private and modern public standards sexual relations would have been likely.’ Dickens, that is, seduced Ellen almost at first meeting:

Having had sexual relations for much of his adult life, he was not likely to renounce them voluntarily when he found himself deeply in love with an attractive young woman. He had no ascetic impulse. He detested prudishness ... There is no reason to believe that either was sufficiently rigid or perverse not to behave normally in their private world.

It was, of course, a private world in which Dickens under an assumed name was regularly – year in, year out – visiting Ellen in a house whose expenses he was paying. By some accounts, there was a child who died.

Ackroyd has no new evidence and we await the publication in November of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan. In the meantime Ackroyd interprets the known facts in a strikingly new way. He contradicts the Wright-derived view of a long-resisted quasi-rape of a disgusted Ellen by a slavering Dickens. He equally contradicts Kaplan’s ‘normal’ couple fornicating as happily as rabbits from the moment they looked in each other’s eyes. Ackroyd discerns in Dickens’s few recorded references to Ellen evidence of ‘an innocent and almost infantile love’. Like Gad’s Hill Place, she represented for him the world of childhood that had always obsessed him. ‘It seems almost inconceivable,’ Ackroyd concludes, ‘that theirs was in any sense a “consummated” affair. We might consider this at least as a hypothesis, therefore – all the evidence about Dickens’s character, and all the evidence we possess about Ellen Ternan herself, suggest that the relationship between them acted for Dickens as the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies. That of sexless marriage with a young, idealised virgin.’

To say that consummation is inconceivable when every serious biographer since Wright has conceived it is a bit overstated. But the idea that the relationship revolved around a high Dickensian fantasy of infantile purity rather than hole-in-corner Victorian adultery is arresting. Ackroyd suggests that there was no straight sex, no intercourse, certainly no love child. This is not entirely new-fangled: Michael Slater in Dickens and Women (1983) pointed to a number of glaring holes in the received view and argued for the possibility of an innocent relationship. What is novel (novelistic, perhaps) is Ackroyd’s idea that for 13 years – the length of many marriages – Dickens and Ellen could sustain the same frozen postures of ungratified desire, like the lovers on Keats’s urn. There was, of course, one difference. By the end of the 13 years Ackroyd’s Ellen would have been no longer ‘a young idealised virgin’ but a spinster fast closing on old maidhood. Presumably Dickens’s imagination could supply the missing bloom.

The attraction of Wright’s theory was that it explained Estella: the vindictive ice maiden whose whole mission in life is to drive men crazy with sexual desire and then disappoint them. The cock-tease appears suddenly in Dickens’s fiction, and disappears as suddenly, lending credence to the hypothesis that he finally got his way with Ellen, after six years lusting, in 1863. Ackroyd’s idealised virgin hypothesis explains the other wholly original character in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham. Trapped at the threshold between consent and defloration, Havisham in her yellowing bridal gown is both changeless and horribly vulnerable to time.

Ackroyd’s main circumstantial evidence for his idealised virgin thesis is Dickens’s bizarre behaviour after the death in 1837 of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. She was just 18 (Ellen’s age when he first met her) and at her death Dickens, as Ackroyd says, felt ‘the most powerful sense of loss and pain he was ever to experience’. It is unthinkable that the newly-married Dickens had an incestuous relationship with Mary, yet undeniable that his feelings towards her were sexual. After her death, ‘he kept all of her clothes.’

All this relates to what is the principal insight in Ackroyd’s portrait of Dickens. For him, the man never outgrew anything. At his death Dickens’s face wore a childlike expression because he had never transcended childhood or wanted to transcend it. At the age of 50 he replayed in his dealings with his mistress the immaturities of his 25-year-old self, just as at the age of 25 he fondled the clothes of the dead Mary Hogarth as a child might weep over a favourite but broken toy. The ‘true knowledge’ about Dickens that Ackroyd offers us is that he was a chronically stunted genius, a kind of Norman Bates whose secret object of desire was a mummy with whom he could play little boy games. Rather sick games, one imagines. Like everyone else on this matter, Ackroyd is playing his hunches and on the basis of some very enigmatic clues he comes up with a psycho. Given the choice, I still prefer a normal to a Norman Dickens. But Ackroyd’s version – whose subsidiary rights have been sold – will make gripping television.