His Friends Were Appalled
- The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster
Cambridge, 1480 pp, £70.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 1 108 03934 5
- Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Harvard, 389 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05003 7
- Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Viking, 527 pp, £30.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 670 91767 9
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 34 No. 2 · 26 January 2012
I’ll take up only three points in Deborah Friedell’s review of my book Charles Dickens (LRB, 5 January). She asserts that I suggest ‘out of the blue’ that Dickens ‘actually died at Nelly’s house in Peckham’. Nowhere in the book do I suggest that Dickens died anywhere but at Gad’s Hill. Are there no fact-checkers at the LRB?
A propos my being hoaxed by the Dostoevsky letter story, she writes: ‘She might have been less susceptible had she not so badly wanted it to be true.’ In fact Malcolm Andrews, distinguished Dickens scholar and editor of the Dickensian, first accepted the Dostoevsky story. As I have already explained in print, I found it in Andrews’s Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, looked up the source he gave – the Dickensian, in 2002 – and presumed he had checked its authenticity. Michael Slater, a pre-eminent Dickens scholar, also accepted it and printed it in his biography of 2009. We were all caught out. The hoax was a clever one precisely because it convinced so many Dickens scholars.
I did not argue in The Invisible Woman that Nelly Ternan was more central to Dickens’s life than other biographers had thought, as Friedell states. I simply set out to tell Ternan’s story as best I could. That was twenty years ago, and in no sense is my new book ‘a return to that project’, as Friedell wrongly informs your readers. The earlier book was about Ternan, the new book is a life of Dickens.
Deborah Friedell’s critique of Claire Tomalin suffers from a lack of bibliographical precision. Tomalin’s suggestion that Dickens died, not at Gad’s Hill, his country house outside Rochester in Kent, but at Ellen Ternan’s home in Peckham, is not presented ‘out of the blue’ in the new biography, as Friedell claims. In fact, Tomalin first advanced this hypothesis in 1991, in the second, paperback edition of The Invisible Woman, where she gives a plausible account of Dickens’s death ‘in compromising circumstances’, based on information sent to her by a reader whose great-grandfather had been told the alternative version of Dickens’s last hours.
Deborah Friedell writes: I refer Claire Tomalin to Mark Bostridge’s letter and to pages 395-96 of her Dickens biography. There she notes inconsistencies in the usual account of Dickens’s death at Gad’s Hill and offers ‘another possible version of the events of Wednesday 8 June’, in which Dickens may have ‘made the familiar journey by train and cab to Peckham’, given Nelly her housekeeping money and soon after this collapsed. Then Nelly would have secreted the ‘inert or semi-conscious’ man to Gad’s Hill so that his body wouldn’t be found with his mistress. But Tomalin doesn’t tell the story in the conditional mood and though she says that ‘it seems wild and improbable,’ she also says it’s not ‘entirely impossible’ and explains why.
The subtitle of The Invisible Woman is ‘The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’. On the first page Tomalin writes that Nelly Ternan ‘played a central part in the life of Charles Dickens at a time when he was perhaps the best-known man in Britain’ though she was ‘wholly excluded from the great biography of Dickens written by his friend John Forster’. The LRB does indeed have fact-checkers.
Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012
Just to get it absolutely straight, I will quote what I wrote in my postscript, ‘The Death of Dickens’, to the paperback edition of The Invisible Woman (Letters, 26 January). The postscript began by giving two letters from Mr Leeson, who offered information that had come through his family about something told them by a church caretaker at Linden Grove in Peckham, which suggested that Dickens might have died there. I followed the quotes with this (p. 273): ‘Mr Leeson saw, as soon as he looked at the standard biographies, that the caretaker was obviously wrong in maintaining that he had helped transport the dead body of Dickens: there were too many witnesses to his actual death at Gad’s Hill.’ I then carried out a detailed investigation of what might possibly have happened, which I thought worth consideration. I still think it worth consideration, but since I went into detail in the postscript, I gave only a summary in the new book. I have never believed or suggested that Dickens died anywhere but at Gad’s Hill.