A Little Local Irritation
- The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. IX: 1859-61 edited by Graham Storey
Oxford, 610 pp, £70.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 19 812293 4
In October 1860 Dickens finally moved what remained of his family from Tavistock Square in Bloombury to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He’d bought it four years earlier (for £1750), steadily improved it, and it remained his home until he died there in 1870. On high ground between Rochester and Gravesend, it was the very spot, as his letters insist, where Falstaff ran away. For Dickens, though, the house had a more personal association: he’d admired it as a small boy living nearby, and had been told by his father that if he worked really hard he might one day be able to live there. Recounting this story earlier in the year in a piece written for his weekly, All the Year Round, Dickens had wisely declined to congratulate himself on the realisation of his childish ambition. The household at Gad’s Hill hardly matched the domestic idylls with which his novels so often conclude.
Dickens’s wife wasn’t part of it, for a start. Catherine had been pensioned off, following the messy separation of 1858, and was living near Regent’s Park with their eldest son Charley. In a letter to Miss Burdett Coutts – a friend to both parties – Dickens unforgivingly vetoes the reconciliation she suggests: ‘That figure is out of my life for evermore (except to darken it), and my desire is, Never to see it again.’ This ban didn’t apply to Charley, whose shaky City career Dickens tried to foster despite his disapproval of Charley’s marriage to the daughter of his former publisher, with whom he’d now quarrelled. Dickens predicted disaster for the marriage – ‘It is sure not to answer’ – but according to one of the quietly corrective notes the Pilgrim Edition so usefully supplies, there is no evidence of unhappiness. The other child to marry at this time was Katie. Her choice of Wilkie Collins’s younger brother was more acceptable, and Dickens presided genially enough over the pastoral festivities: ‘the people of the village strewed flowers in the churchyard, and erected triumphal arches, and fired guns.’ It was ‘a great success’, he conceded. ‘So far.’
In the absence of his wife Dickens’s table was ‘gracefully’ headed by his eldest daughter Mary, or Mamie. One of his annual letters to his old Lausanne friend de Cerjat describes her as a ‘capital housekeeper’, delegating ‘certain appointed duties to her sister and her aunt ... they are all three devotedly attached’. A year later he tells de Cerjat that Georgina Hogarth, the aunt, remains the general guide, philosopher and friend, which means that she was really the one in charge. Doubting that Georgina will ever marry, Dickens hardly knows whether to be glad or sorry, ‘finding the subject perplexing – not being a judge of marriages’. The fact that this was deleted in earlier editions of the letters indicates how sensitive the subject of his home life continued to be long after his death.
Of Dickens’s sons, only the youngest, known as ‘Plorn’, stayed on at Gad’s Hill. News of the others – Charley at Baring’s, Walter out in India, Frank trying to learn German in Hamburg, Sydney being accepted for the Navy, Alfred and Henry at various schools – is relayed in a style sometimes more cheery than convincing. Dickens’s treatment of his boys has been thought dictatorial, but the letters reveal anxiety and pride as well as irritation; there’s certainly no comparison between his sense of paternal responsibility and his own feckless parents’ lack of it. It may be just an accident of survival or typical of the reticences of the period, but the number of full and affectionate letters included in this volume which were written to Mamie and Georgina when Dickens was away from home contrasts strikingly with the absence of any similar correspondence with his sons.
Dickens’s pleasure in his new house is as obvious as his love of the estuarine countryside round it. Invitations to sample the delights of Gad’s Hill are frequent – by train it was only an hour and ten minutes from London Bridge to the nearest station at Higham (it’s not much quicker now). ‘You have no idea what a good place for working in, this is,’ he told Carlyle. Even so, there was no question of spending all his time there. He rented a house in town during the season (for the girls’ sake, he said), and also kept a five-room bachelor flat over the All the Year Round office. It was therefore easy for him to keep in touch with the Ternan family.
Dickens had fallen in love with Ellen Ternan in 1858, when she’d acted alongside him with her mother and sisters in Wilkie Collins’s melodrama The Frozen Deep. This volume of letters mentions her name only once (again deleted in earlier editions), when Dickens instructs Wills, his sub-editor, to send some proofs to her address. These were chapters from A Tale of Two Cities, whose heroine Lucie fits Ellen’s description. Allusions to her elsewhere are oblique, but Dickens’s involvement with the Ternan family is clear. When he gave up Tavistock House he had the rash idea of letting it to them, until dissuaded by Wills and Forster (as much Dickens’s minder in life as in his biography). Soon after, Ellen’s sisters bought the lease of a house near Mornington Crescent, which they passed to Ellen when she was 21. The Pilgrim editors summarise and endorse the case made by Claire Tomalin in her biography of Ternan and by other scholars that Dickens put up the money. He also wrote to theatre managers in London and Paris to try and advance the performing careers of Fanny and Maria Ternan. When he has doubts about accepting a lucrative invitation to read in America ‘for a private reason, rendering a long Voyage and absence particularly painful to me’ (another passage hitherto deleted), it’s surely the separation from Ellen that he fears. (His pull in America is illustrated by the £1000 he was paid by a New York editor for the short story ‘Hunted Down’ – an unsought offer he found too handsome to refuse.)
In previous volumes of the letters Dickens’s innate restlessness and long periods abroad often made him seem like Mr Bucket in Bleak House – someone whom time and place cannot bind. One misses here the brilliant missives sent from Paris and Boulogne while he was writing Little Dorrit which were such a feature of Volume VIII. He did make a brief sortie with Collins to the West Country in search of material for the 1860 Christmas number of All the Year Round, however, and also went on two provincial reading tours; the second of which, with 46 dates, was especially gruelling because of the death of his devoted manager (it’s a pity there’s no appendix with a list of venues, as in the last volume). There were Christmas readings in London, too. Dickens’s histrionic authority was now well established, and his reception correspondingly rapturous (the Manchester Examiner, for instance, thought his rendering of the wreck in Copperfield had ‘never been excelled by any actor of the present half-century’).
Although it’s clear from letters written on the road that his unique hold on the public hadn’t been significantly weakened by rumours of scandal during the separation, they don’t show as much exhilaration as before. The élan with which Dickens used to chronicle the Inimitable’s exploits is either fitful or absent. He assures Miss Burdett Coutts, on Easter Sunday 1860, that he is ‘quite as hopeful, cheerful, and active, as I ever was’, but the letter seems dispirited. He complains several times of his difficulty in writing letters at all. This depression was probably connected with his unsatisfactory relationship with Ellen. Even if she were finally to give in to him – and we don’t know for certain that she ever did – their relationship could never be acknowledged or public.
Dickens was normally so healthy that his recurring admissions of illness come as a surprise. An attack of rheumatism in the summer of 1860 forced him to cancel all his engagements, as did some weeks of facial neuralgia in 1861. More startlingly, he wrote in June 1859 to Frank Beard, his medical adviser, that ‘My bachelor state has engendered a small malady on which I want to see you’ (another previously censored sentence). ‘Possibly a venereal infection,’ the note suggests. As Dickens put it, what else would it be? In July, writing to Wills, he jokingly puts his address as ‘Cripple’s Arms’, and laments his slow recovery to Forster. Beard’s prescriptions don’t seem to help. In August he wishes he could join Collins at Broadstairs for some sea bathing, but ‘there is no nitrate of Silver in the Ocean.’ Silver nitrate was used for treating ulcers. By Christmas 1860, which Dickens spent in town to be near the doctor, the trouble had still not cleared up. He wasn’t in pain, he assured Georgy back at Gad’s Hill, but ‘the disagreeables that affected me in that hot summer’ had to be put right; the ‘local irritation’ was still extreme. Whether ‘the disagreeables’ was a euphemism for family consumption or whether Georgy was as clinically informed as his closest male friends isn’t clear, but Dickens’s complaint seems to have been too persistent to be kept to himself. Although it’s often assumed that he was more excited by violence than by sex, the fact that he and Catherine had had ten children doesn’t suggest conjugal sluggishness. One might even wonder whether his notorious instruction (given in Volume VIII) that the door between his dressing-room and Catherine’s bedroom be boarded up wasn’t prompted in part by a fear that sexual need might prove too strong for him.
There are things that Dickens’s letters cannot tell us, but no biography can bring us as close to his daily life, especially when the letters are as heroically annotated as in this monumental edition. As each volume appears (the first came out in 1965) the stature of the scholarship of Kathleen Tillotson, Graham Storey and their collaborators becomes more impressive. There are over a thousand letters in Volume IX alone, and the picture they offer of Dickens’s activities during the three years the book covers is more various than a biography could accommodate. The launch of All the Year Round, for instance, took up much time and energy. As usual with Dickens the title seemed crucial. He took some persuading by Forster that, in view of his own domestic difficulties, Household Harmony wasn’t the answer. The eventual title seems to have been suggested by Wilkie Collins. If All the Year Round was to be successful it needed a strong serial, and starting off with A Tale of Two Cities helped the circulation to reach 100,000 within weeks. This was followed by The Woman in White, about which Dickens was complimentary – ‘masterly ... No one else could do it, half so well’ – but also shrewd, as when he notes that Collins’s narrators ‘have a DISSECTIVE property in common, which is essentially not theirs but yours’. Charles Lever’s A Day’s Ride, on the other hand, was a disaster, and Dickens had to move in smartly with Great Expectations. His sensitive negotiations with Lever and with other novelists such as Charles Reade and Bulwer Lytton – as well as with regular contributors like Trollope’s prolific brother Tom – are models of professional courtesy.
Nowhere is he more tactful than in his approaches to George Eliot, made partly through G.H. Lewes. His admiration of Adam Bede is expressed in heartfelt terms: it had ‘taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life’. He was particularly moved by the part of the book which followed Hetty Sorrel’s trial. ‘Dickens has written to me the noblest, most touching words about “Adam,” ’ George Eliot said, but she didn’t feel that All the Year Round’s conditions would suit her. Her appreciation of Dickens survived dining with him, however: ‘a man one can thoroughly enjoy talking to – there is a strain of real seriousness along with his keenness and humour.’ It is typical of this edition that we are also given Lewes’s comment on the evening’s ‘delightful talk’ and Dickens’s on George Eliot’s ‘shy manner of saying brilliant things’.
Dickens continued to run strong pieces on political matters in All the Year Round, but the indignation expressed in his attack on Circumlocution and Barnacleism in Little Dorrit had given way to something like apathy. Congratulating Forster on his book on the Civil War, he stressed its importance to people who ‘(like myself) are so sick of the shortcomings of representative Government as to have no interest in it’. In any case, while writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens only read books relating to the period covered by the novel (Carlyle told him what to borrow from the London Library). He defended his use of historical fact to Bulwer Lytton and his narrative method to Wilkie Collins, but in the Preface disclaims any hope of adding anything ‘to the philosophy of Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book’ (a tribute later offset by his devastating parody of Carlyle’s manner in a letter to Macready). He told Forster that his treatment of the French Revolution was ‘picturesque’, a story of incident. The trouble is that the emphasis on construction – as well as the condensation made necessary by the shortness of the weekly instalments – attenuates the characterisation, so that the prison trauma of Dr Manette looks feebly mechanical when compared with the agonies felt by Mr Dorrit after his long years in the Marshalsea. The novel’s famous climax – Sydney Carton’s ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’ – is an analogue, as the Preface states, of that of The Frozen Deep, where the hero dies to save the life of the man preferred by the girl he loves. Dickens had made a great impression as the self-sacrificer, and was probably right in thinking, as he wrote to an old friend, that if he had played Carton, he ‘could have done something with his life and death’. His attempt to set up a dramatisation in Paris fell foul of the censor and he had to content himself with supervising Tom Taylor’s version in London, trying hard ‘to infuse into the conventionalities of the Theatre, some thing not usual there in the way of Life and Truth’. The conventionalities of the theatre, however, are inherent in the novels’ endorsement of the belief that any situation can be resolved with a big enough gesture.
The problem of Ellen could not be so easily dealt with. The subtext of Great Expectations is a confrontation of the fact that, in love, there are some situations in which nothing can be done or put right. The clue to what Pip calls his ‘poor labyrinth’ is that he loved Estella because she was irresistible and he had no choice. Early mentions of the novel in the letters – with Pip and Joe Gargery in mind – stress that it’s to be ‘grotesque’, ‘very funny’ and ‘exceedingly droll’, but these aren’t words to describe Pip’s later disillusionment How was such a story to end, when Dickens himself was still in the middle of it? Fortunately, Forster preserved Dickens’s first thoughts – a chance meeting and final parting with a chastened Estella – which Dickens was persuaded by Lytton to abandon for reasons said to be good but never specified. His defence of the ‘pretty little piece of writing’ he substituted as ‘more acceptable’ is curiously limp. Dickens was not a man to let others make decisions for him. He admired Lytton (and named his youngest son after him), but his editorial interventions while Lytton’s A Strange Story was running in All the Year Round weren’t deferential. The question has been much mulled over, but Graham Storey is surely right to suggest that Dickens’s retraction may have been a last-minute capitulation to the kind of wishful thinking about Ellen that the rest of Great Expectations shows to be futile.