Charles Dickens: Special Correspondent for Posterity

December 16, 2011

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, New York: The Penguin Press, 2011

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

No book is ever totally replaced by another book. It is often a mistake to think that books exist in competition with each other. Instead, books refer, relate and respond to previous arguments and styles, exploring new ideas, revisiting old evidence, echoing familiar voices, and experimenting with theme, structure and characterisation. Writers quote, allude, criticise, steal, correct and create. But never in a vacuum. The bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth in February 1812 is an opportunity for the bulging shelves of Dickens biography and criticism to become even more crowded, or rather to expand with the intellectual universe. The newly published books on Dickens do not force out the old.

Dickens has been well served by biographers ever since his longtime friend and adviser John Forster published his three volume Life of Charles Dickens from 1872 to 1874. Claire Tomalin’s new book, Charles Dickens: A Life, makes excellent use of John Forster’s pioneering work as well as the many volumes of Dickens’s letters, and numerous other primary documents. This engaging and accessible narrative also weaves in the research and arguments of other Dickens scholars and biographers, even those, like Peter Ackroyd, with whom Tomalin fundamentally disagrees on certain key points.

John Forster was the first to learn from Charles Dickens about the author’s painful, shameful but formative experiences of being sent to work in a blacking factory as a twelve year old child while his chronically spendthrift and financially unreliable father was held in Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Dickens, a small, sensitive but observant child, missed out on a good deal of formal education as a young boy as well as time and emotional bonding with his parents and siblings. He was conscious that his parents sent him out to work, and he remembered the day when a sympathetic man gave him a coin as he nimbly wrapped and labelled jars of shoe blacking while his father stood by in total silence. Dickens subsequently worked hard to develop his talents and to educate himself, teaching himself shorthand and taking out a ticket for the British Museum’s Reading Room.

Dickens kept these difficult childhood experiences secret from his own children, though they help to explain his pronounced sympathy for the poor as well as his strong adult desire for money and security. His childhood haunts and experiences also reemerge in central themes, landmarks, and images from his fiction and journalism, and in his sometimes harsh treatment of people – including his father and some of his own children – who Dickens felt were financially inept, dependent, or outright spongers. His father never fully reformed his profligacy and John Dickens regularly bent, and occasionally broke, both the law and the normal bounds of a parental relationship. As a wealthy author weighed down by his importunate and opportunistic father, Charles Dickens finally went to the extreme of publishing an advertisement in the newspapers saying that he would not honour debts run up in his name. Many years later, in one harsh letter quoted by Tomalin, Charles Dickens wrote dismissively of his indebted son: “I fear Sydney is much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish that he were honestly dead.” These cruel words came from a man who was enormously charitable and kind: defender of the oppressed, legal advocate for innocents facing the death penalty, rescuer of widows and orphans in penury, and protector of fallen women. For more than a decade Dickens helped run a Home for Homeless Women at Urania Cottage, an institution for former prostitutes or women at risk of prostitution that would provide food, safety, colourful clothes, education, and the opportunity to graduate to a new life in Canada, South Africa or Australia. Better the colonies and the chance for a respectable marriage than a life on the streets or in the prisons and workhouses of London.

Tomalin presents a vivid picture of Dickens’s childhood memories and experiences, and like other commentators she emphasises the blending, enlargement, and refraction of his life and art, most obviously in works such as David Copperfield. Tomalin takes us through the streets, in the fog, beside the Thames, and recreates 19th Century London with its smells, its fashions, its gin punch and oysters, and its carriages, mud, newspapers, coffee houses, Chartists and Corn Laws. We peer into the low-browed, beetling pawnshops and pass by the dull red brick houses of broken fortunes. Tomalin does this very convincingly. But in establishing this tone and atmosphere Tomalin has the advantage of working through Charles Dickens and with Charles Dickens. For who in the English-speaking world (or in this era of films and BBC dramas) does not visualise 19th Century London through images created, inspired or fashioned by Charles Dickens?

Like other good biographers of Dickens, Tomalin emphasises his youthful attraction to the theatre and the way this love of performance and melodrama influenced his life and his writing. Throughout his adult life Dickens put on amateur and semi-professional productions for family, friends and for charity. In his last decade Dickens spent a great deal of time and energy (and made a huge amount of money) delivering public readings of his condensed fiction to large and adoring audiences across England and America. The pressure of these readings arguably hastened his death, with his pulse jumping from its normal 72 beats to 112 beats per minute during performance. But Dickens needed the physical and emotional bond with his public – he was a “friend to the people” – and his racing heart reflected both the speed of his emotions and the frenetic pace of his creativeness.

Dickens had a manic energy, intense eyes, and a habit of taking very long walks at night while he thought through a plot or characterisation. At his height Dickens had an extraordinary capacity for work, sometimes writing two serialised novels at once while also producing journalism, visiting prisons and asylums, staging plays, moving house from London to Kent to Genoa or to Boulogne and back, using mesmerism to treat a sick friend, and setting up the Home for Homeless Women.

As a young writer of sketches and humourous characters, Dickens achieved success early, and he maintained and expanded this popularity throughout his career. The story of his readers in England and across the Atlantic holding out for the next installment of his sentimental novels is both true and legendary: Americans at the docks called out to approaching English ships “Is Nell dead?”, and British adults broke down in tears or threw the paper out of the train window in grief and despair at the death of a beloved character. Dickens had power.

Tomalin is astute in her explanation of Dickens’s sense of his own power, including his sharp dealing with his various English publishers. Dickens reneged on deals or renegotiated contracts to his own benefit. But in most cases his writing was so popular that his publishers did very well from his labours, even with revised terms. Given the not unfamiliar pattern through history of writers being ripped off by publishers (or literary agents), few modern readers may sympathise with Dickens’s long suffering publishers. (These sceptics may be more sympathetic, however, to those illustrators or other collaborators cast aside by Dickens without explanation, or because they disagreed with him on some professional or personal matter.)

Dickens, of course, did not always get his own way. There were no international copyright agreements until 1891, twenty-one years after his death, and Dickens bemoaned the widespread pirating of his works in America, much to the displeasure of some Americans who thought he was a rich whinger. Given that some of his works sold in the millions in America, Dickens felt that he had something to whinge about, and he became an early advocate of copyright protection. (As an aside, it is ironic that American companies today look on China and Chinese attitudes to intellectual property rights in the same way as British writers and firms looked at America and American practices in the mid 19th Century. Now the Americans are the rich whingers, and China is the emerging power.)

Like all modern biographers of Dickens, Tomalin explores his complex marital situation and his relationships with younger women. Tomalin has sympathy for Catherine Dickens, who bore her husband ten children while suffering almost constantly from post natal depression. For a period of fifteen years it seemed that every time Charles Dickens looked up from his writing desk his wife fell pregnant. But he grew to find her unappealing, awkward, and dull, and Dickens separated from her, providing Catherine with a home and a steady allowance but little sympathy or consideration.

Charles Dickens had intense, but not sexual relationships with two of Catherine’s younger sisters, Mary and Georgina Hogarth. Mary died in Dickens’s arms as a seventeen year old girl, and his idealisation of this pure, doomed creature may have influenced both his writing – which is replete with virginal innocents who are too good for this dark world – and his relationships with other young women, most notably Mary’s younger sister Georgina and the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. Tomalin mentions the intensity of Dickens’s grief at the death of Mary, and like other biographers she records his startling desire to be buried alongside her. But unlike writers such as Peter Ackroyd, she does not dwell on this relationship or discuss some of the more extreme trappings of Dickens’s grief. According to Ackroyd and others, Dickens kept Mary’s clothes after her death and would take them out years later to grieve over and gaze upon. Tomalin does not even mention this behaviour. Is this because she thinks the story is apocryphal, or is this because such an intense but non-sexual relationship with Mary would detract from Tomalin’s later argument that Dickens had an intense and sexual relationship with another young woman, Nelly Ternan?

Before we come to Nelly Ternan, there were many years where Georgina Hogarth was the young woman in Dickens’s life. Georgina lived with Catherine and Charles Dickens as helper, friend and companion during their marriage, and then she lived with Charles Dickens after the marriage split with Catherine, effectively serving as a housemaid or secondary mother to the children as well as companion to Dickens. Tomalin, like Ackroyd and others, emphasises the closeness of the bond between Charles and Georgy, with Georgy siding with her brother-in-law during the estrangement between Dickens and her sister, and remaining a permanent – but platonic – member of Charles Dickens’s household until his death. These biographers agree that there was a kind of love, but not sex between Charles and Georgy.

But this agreement breaks down when it comes to Nelly Ternan. Ackroyd sees Dickens’s relationship with this young woman in the context of his relationships with other young women, such as Mary and Georgy, and the idealisation that Dickens had for the pure, intelligent and gifted who he could guide, protect, befriend, and patronise. Significantly, Nelly was also “of the theatre” which Dickens adored, and the place where they first met for one of his performances. Dickens acted alongside Nelly’s sister Maria in The Frozen Deep. On stage he died in her arms, Maria’s tears falling into his mouth and onto his beard. Dickens also helped Nelly’s mother and sisters with money, theatrical engagements and singing lessons. Nelly and Dickens had a long and special relationship that lasted until his death in 1870. Ackroyd believes that there was never a physical consummation of this relationship.

Tomalin disagrees with Ackroyd by arguing that the relationship between Charles and Nelly was sexual and involved the secret birth and death of a son. This powerful belief colours Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens for good and ill. She provides excellent detail about Nelly Ternan and her interesting family and their movements, but where the movements of Dickens and Nelly are not known, supposition or surmise take over, and some important events in Dickens’s life are not fully explored or appreciated because they are seen solely through the prism of the Nelly affair.

None of the extant letters of Dickens and his correspondents discuss a sexual relationship with Nelly or the birth and death of a child. There is no birth place. There is no birth certificate. There is no name for the son. There is no death certificate. There is no gravestone or burial site. There is no contemporary witness or contemporary gossip about the child. Nelly’s longtime housemaid also denied that there was ever a sexual relationship between her mistress and Dickens, but Tomalin does not refer to this witness. Instead Tomalin relies predominantly on the second-hand word of Dickens’s daughter Katey, whose evidence was presented posthumously in 1939 (although corroborated by Bernard Shaw who said that Katey told him the same thing years earlier). In her narrative Tomalin moves from the tentative to the definitive, from the suggestion that perhaps there was a son to the repeated reference to the son of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan as indubitable fact.

The centrality of the sexual story in this biography influences – and at times detracts from – the evaluation of Dickens the man and Dickens the writer. In 1865 Charles, Nelly and Mrs Ternan were sharing a first-class train carriage when incomplete repairs to the track and inadequate signalling led to a fatal crash. Carriages plunged off a bridge and one carriage, where Dickens, Nelly and her mother were seated, was left hanging. Tomalin’s overwhelming focus on this crash is with the fact that it proved Dickens and Nelly were together, and that Nelly was whisked away to avoid scandal. Tomalin briefly mentions that Dickens aided the injured and dying, but this treatment is scant. She does not provide the drama and rich detail of other accounts, such as the evidence of Dickens climbing down to rescue victims, scooping water in his hat to slake the thirst of the injured, or the comfort he gave to a new bridegroom whose bride Dickens discovered crushed and dead. Tomalin completely ignores the report that after aiding the injured and comforting the bereaved Dickens remembered that manuscript chapters of Our Mutual Friend were left in his bag in the damaged train. Dickens climbed back into the precariously hanging carriage to retrieve his work.

Tomalin’s prosecution of the sexual case also leads to the most unfortunate and unnecessary speculation in what is otherwise an excellent and enjoyable biography: the death of Charles Dickens in 1870. Georgina Hogarth, Katey Dickens, and other contemporary sources all mention the collapse and death of Dickens at home in Gad’s Hill, Kent. He died surrounded by family, including Georgina who was with him when he fell to the floor. He died in the grand home that he had first seen as a boy with his father and which he had bought as consummation of a childhood dream of wealth and security. But Tomalin raises the possibility that Dickens actually collapsed in Nelly’s home in Peckham and was then transported unconscious for several hours in a two-horse brougham, and with everyone “sworn to secrecy,” before being carried insensible into Gad’s Hill where he subsequently died. Tomalin says herself that her reconstruction “seems a wild and improbable story, but not an entirely impossible one.” But on such criteria all kinds of fancies can be built, and Tomalin’s biography would be more convincing without this flimsy and unnecessary notion.

Karl Marx (who Tomalin completely ignores in this lengthy volume) told Freidrich Engels that his London contemporary Charles Dickens “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” While Dickens was labelled “Mr Popular Sentiment” by Anthony Trollope, even trenchant critics like Walter Bagehot admitted that he described London “like a special correspondent for posterity.” Fyodor Dostoevsky admired Dickens’s work and visited him in London, and the great Russian writer left a striking remembrance of Dickens: “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), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love.” Katey Dickens, who lived through years of brilliance, party games, and the painful treatment of her mother who ought to have been loved, knew well the two sides of her enigmatic father. To Katey, Charles Dickens “was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!” Katey loved her father “for his faults,” and with Charles Dickens: A Life Claire Tomalin presents a brilliant, though flawed portrait of his life and enduring literature.

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