Charles Dickens: The Show (But-Don’t-Tell) Man

On February 7, 2012, the world of readers will officially celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth. Too impatient to wait for the actual birth date, those with good Dickens collections started the party rolling months ago. In America, an exhibit of Dickens memorabilia opened at the Morgan Library in New York City in late September 2011, another at the Free Library of Philadelphia the end of November. Dickensians also have several new books to savor and digest, some that are full of pictures, others containing letters the pyromaniacally private CD never got a chance to burn, and at least two new serious biographies, of which Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life stands out as the biggest and most comprehensive.[1] She knows her man in every guise, every slant of light, and every shadow:

He left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens. The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveler. The satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist. The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father. . . . The brilliance in the room. The inimitable. And, above and beyond every other description, simply the great, hard-working writer, who set nineteenth-century London before our eyes and who noticed and celebrated the small people living on the margins of society. . . . After he had been writing for long hours at Wellington Street, he would sometimes ask his office boy to bring him a bucket of cold water and put his head into it, and his hands. Then he would dry his head with a towel and go on writing.

Tomalin dipped memorably into Dickens’ life years ago, as he was the man who made the actress Ellen Ternan disappear from the stage and into the role of his late-in-life-mistress, a magic trick she explicates fully in The Invisible Woman (1990). Here, however, Nelly Ternan acts only one part of a much larger life story that puts Dickens in the context of his parentage, class, country, and historical moment. This isn’t a book with many surprises for scholars who have access to a host of fine biographies, from John Forster’s loving homage to his best friend, to Edgar Johnson’s exhaustively researched life in 1952, to the half-fictional imaginings of Peter Ackroyd, up through the rather recent and sensible scholarship of Michael Slater. However, it’s engagingly written, thoroughly researched, and empathetic. Tomalin is one of the best biographers writing today, and her hand on a subject has a definitive touch. For that reason, this is likely to be the go-to biography of Dickens for some time to come, and it does deliver a couple of ideas no one else has ever seriously considered.

The first concerns John Dickens, Charles’ impecunious father and the model for Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. John’s mother, Elizabeth Dickens, was a maidservant in the household of John Crewe, a wealthy landowner with homes in Cheshire and Mayfair. Elizabeth came to the family when she married the butler, William Dickens, a man nearly thirty years her senior. Their first son, William, was born in 1782; in 1785 William senior died, but Elizabeth gave birth to a posthumous child later that year. Tomalin’s ingenious surmise, based on the fact that John Dickens, the younger sibling, received patronage from the Crewe family that his older brother never enjoyed, is that he was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat.

John’s older brother ran a coffee shop in London, but John, at age 20, was recommended for a post in the Navy Pay Office. Unlike his working-class brother, John was a man of taste, culture, and expensive habits. He owned many books, and he had grown up in Crewe house paying attention to the wealthy people his mother worked for, especially John Crewe’s wife, Frances, a society belle with a sharp wit and a devoted lover: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who dedicated The School for Scandal to her. Tomalin sifts these facts and draws a conclusion.

John Dickens may have been the son of the elderly butler, but it is also possible that he had a different father—perhaps John Crewe, exercising his droit de seigneur, cheering himself up for his wife’s infidelities, or another of the gentlemen who were regular guests at the Crewe residences. Or he may have believed that he was. His silence about his first twenty years, his habit of spending and borrowing and enjoying all things as though he were somehow entitled to do so, all suggest something of the kind, and harks back to the sort of behavior he would have observed with dazzled eyes at Crewe Hall and in Mayfair. This was the style of Sheridan, and also [Charles James] Fox, who gambled away several fortunes and borrowed from all his friends without a thought of ever repaying any of them. What is worth noting is that he can be presumed to have grown up with a group of men as models who were, as well as gamblers and drinkers, the most eloquent of their time.

Sheridan became Treasurer of the Navy, and John Dickens was promoted. The extra income enabled him to marry in 1809. Shortly after their marriage, his wife Elizabeth’s father absconded to Europe to escape charges that he had stolen from his employer. Elizabeth soon discovered she had married a man who also enjoyed living beyond his means, but they were a charming, well-suited couple in other ways. Charles Dickens was born in 1812, the second of their five children.

Charles was a sickly child, but observant. He loved to act, to sing comic songs, and to write character sketches of curious people he saw on the streets. By the age of 10, he had the twinned gifts that would mark his genius: A unique way of seeing the world and the drive to express his vision in the most entertaining manner possible. John recognized his son’s many talents and sent him to a grammar school, where he excelled, but the father’s failings with money forced the son to leave his education behind. When Charles was 12, his father was remanded to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, and the rest of the family, except for Charles, went with him.

Here commences the part of Dickens’ life that left a dark mark on his spirit. He was forced to live alone in lodgings, away from his family, and work many hours a day with other poor boys in a factory, pasting labels on pots of blacking. He had become a kind of orphan; the worst kind, perhaps, for he still had a family, but they had left him to fend as he might in a world of work filled with adults he could not always trust. One adult he could not trust turned out to be his own mother. When John Dickens got out of prison and then released Charles from bondage in the factory, his mother suggested he go back and continue earning money for the family. John prevented it, but as Dickens told Forster, “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” Tomalin also finds it odd that “neither his father nor his mother ever mentioned the blacking factory or Charles’s year as a child laborer again in their lives—not a word, not a hint.” But he never forgot it, and very likely the host of plucky orphans who people his novels were born from that experience; perhaps also his inability to understand adult women—the most trenchant remark one can make about his heroines is that they are insipid. Even if the selfless “angel in the house” was the female model of the day, other good novelists (Thackeray, George Meredith, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, just to name a handful) could still mint multifaceted female characters. But too often Dickens could not. Most of his heroines read like little girls or melodramatic breast beaters drawn straight from the sentimental stage plays of his day.[2] He seemed incapable of understanding an adult woman, which may be why he suffered so much in his relationship with his wife and, later, his mistress.

His first great love was Maria Beadnell, who was 20 to his 18 when he met her. Charles was by then working as a parliamentary reporter, and she was the pretty, capricious daughter of a prosperous banker. Nothing about her suggests that she could come close to matching his intelligence or lively personality, but Dickens was an inventor: He invented not only characters, but the people around him. No wonder he often failed to understand his own closest friends and family members—when they asserted themselves as real people, he was stunned. He had imposed his own imagination on Maria Beadnell, and her parents had imposed their will on her. They did not want her marrying a young man with mediocre parentage and uncertain prospects, and they whisked her off to Paris to forget him. Dickens’ broken-hearted letters (“I have never loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself”) were of no avail. She was gone, and he had to carry on. Years later he would meet her again when he was temporarily besotted by a renewed correspondence, but seeing her fat, fortyish, silly self was too much for even a Dickensian imagination, and the rekindling did not last an hour. If once he had rhapsodized about Maria, invoking her young self as Dora in David Copperfield, now he found her a parody of her former self and cast her as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Of course he knew, as they were still exchanging letters after their comic (to him) reunion, that she was reading the novel as it came out and would surely recognize herself. Dickens at least had the good sense to give Flora a good heart to go with the corpulent comedy of her character, and she is a better character for that.

He threw himself into work, and male friendships, and pleasure—seeing plays, acting in amateur theatricals, reading and writing, walking and riding, enjoying hot chops, oysters, plum puddings, and huge meals of every sort at London restaurants while also regularly hosting drinking parties at his lodgings. He became a political journalist and started writing and publishing sketches “by Boz” (a penname he picked because it was how he said “nose” when affected with one of his recurring, terrible colds). As his star began to ascend, he met Catherine Hogarth, another woman who was above him, but differently: her Scottish father was a newspaper editor and a friend of Robert Burns.

His wooing of Catherine and writing of his first great novel, The Pickwick Papers, prospered up apace. In April 1836 they were married. What Catherine was really like is difficult to say, for virtually no one she knew had anything to say about her. That leaves readers with only Dickens’ unreliable accounts of her—“dearest” for years, and then a cold woman who disliked, and was disliked by, her own children when he decided he wanted to leave her for another woman. Tomalin observes that in Dickens’ novels, “young women meant to be lovable tend to be pretty, timid, fluttering.” They are domestic angels, as Catherine certainly was; indeed, she’d never known anything else but her home life when she married him. She had “kind looks and a gentle manner,” and certainly she looked up to and adored her powerful husband. As long as her adoration was what he wanted, all was well. When he wanted something else—which eventually he did, as their ten children wore down her body and his interest—he treated her cruelly. Tomalin remarks, “[Catherine] was incapable of establishing or defending any values of her own, of making her own safe situation from which she should rule within the home, let alone taking up any other interest.” Thus, her younger sister Georgina became the woman of the house, its chief housekeeper and manager, and Catherine was relegated to the role of baby maker. She provided Dickens with a sexual outlet for twenty-two years, and then he tired of her and broke up with her in a scandal that divided their friends and family.

First, however, there were the happier decades. In his first years of marriage, Dickens wrote a novel a year, published in serial installments (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop). He discovered many of his lifelong friends, from John Forster to a host of artists, actors and painters (he “always felt comfortable with [them]: none of them was rich, most had struggled to educate themselves, and all of them worked hard”). He became the paterfamilias to a growing family (Catherine matched his annual books with an annual baby) and continued to take care of his brothers, sisters, and exasperatingly insolvent father. He was also developing his fascination with the London poor and ways to ameliorate, not just describe, their abysmal living conditions. His habit of walking the worst streets of London for hours at night, and visiting prisons and poorhouses, became established in these years.

He also loved games, magic tricks, and circuses. He always liked to play, perhaps because he’d lost part of his childhood in the blacking factory and was always making up for it as an adult. He must have been an energetic and fun companion, though some found him aggressive and moody. He worked hard, played hard, and ate and drank with gusto. Indeed, in light of the many meals described lustily by Dickens in novel and after novel, it’s ironic that the worst health crisis of his young life involved the other end of his alimentary canal. Tomalin’s second piece of new (to me) info is that Dickens was operated on—without anesthetic —for an anal fistula in 1841. This was perhaps his worst illness until gout overtook him late in life.

In 1842, Dickens, a lion of letters in England, toured America with his wife (they left the children in the care of her sister). It was an exhausting but successful tour, and Catherine was a trouper. Nevertheless, Dickens’ initial praise of Boston was followed by sharp distaste for virtually every other American city. He met and liked Longfellow, but many other Americans struck him as boorish and ill-mannered. Slavery was a horror he could scarce believe, even when he saw it with his own eyes. Further, his speeches aimed at achieving some copyright protection for his works (American publishers were gleefully pirating everything he wrote) fell on closed ears.

Exhausted and disgruntled, Dickens returned to England and wrote a scathing portrait of England’s former colony. His American Notes succeeded in making enemies of those who might have been his friends. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the great literary critics of his time, deemed it “one of the most suicidal productions, ever deliberately published by an author, who had the least reputation to lose.” (Perhaps Poe recognized a kindred spirit.) Dickens’ next book, Martin Chuzzlewit, a novel on the same American themes, sold poorly. He didn’t get his writing groove back until December 1843, when he published his first Christmas book, A Christmas Carol, and inaugurated a yearly tradition that would add to his fame and his wealth.

As the 1840s went on, Dickens embarked on a great piece of philanthropy with the indefatigable (and very wealthy) reformer Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts. Together they opened the Home for Homeless Women and greatly improved the lives of hundreds of former and potential prostitutes by teaching them life skills and then helping them emigrate to Australia or Canada. This institution in Shepherd’s Bush has received its own book (by Jenny Hartley), but it shows Dickens in one of his best lights, actually practicing what he preached in his stories. Indeed, he understood these young women better than any of his heroines, and even the cheeky ones endeared themselves to him: “One told him frankly as he was leaving after a committee meeting that she wished she were going out too, preferably to the races. Another took up secretly with the local policeman. Two broke into the cellar with knives and got drunk on the beer stored there. One he described, after expelling her, as capable of corrupting a nunnery in a fortnight.” But all of them were his charges, and he took care of them as well as he could, and their successes were legion.

Charles Dickens discovered France in these same years (and became a lifelong Francophile), he edited a newspaper (for which he was not suited), and then two magazines (for which he was). He opened himself up to his friend Forster about the worst experience of his childhood, and Forster helped him put those experiences into his fiction. David Copperfield was born, and later Pip, of Great Expectations. Add Esther Summerson of Bleak House, and you have the three resourceful, poignant orphans of Dickens’ best novels. Tomalin covers all of them, but her literary analysis feels scant and pedestrian. She is at her best analyzing Dickens himself rather than his writings. Which is just as well, as many scholars have devoted themselves to the work, but far fewer to the life.

The hardest period of his life to explain is the one in which the champion of hearth and home broke with his wife and family to pursue an actress young enough to be his daughter. That alone would not be difficult to analyze had Dickens not also insisted on blaming Catherine for his behavior, publishing letters in the press to explain his decision to leave her and castigating her for his own bad behavior. It’s an uncanny episode that makes one wonder if Dickens had temporarily lost his mind; certainly, he lost many of his friends and family members who would not or could not agree with his view of the situation. Further, as the greatest showman of his age, he also had a great deal he was not telling: His primary motivation for leaving his wife was the young woman, Ellen Ternan, whose honor he lauded in print but privately longed to besmirch. She didn’t give in to him sexually for years, but not because he wasn’t trying to seduce her.

For those who haven’t read Tomalin’s earlier book on Nelly and her actress sisters and mother, this part of the biography will be a revelation. Dickens met her while performing The Frozen Deep, a play by Wilkie Collins, and he fell in love with her at the same time he discovered his pleasure in acting a poignant part (the character he played in the Collins piece is a self-abnegating man he would re-create as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities) before a large, live audience. Ellen represented the type of innocent young girl he liked best in both real life and fiction. She had no romantic interest in him, but he had invented her as his soulmate and pursued her relentlessly. Her sensible mother protected her as well as she could, making sure her daughter did not sleep with the famous man until he was well and truly committed to her.

He told Forster he wanted to be “pure as a boy” again for her, but Tomalin comments, “Instead, the darkest part of his character was summoned up. . . . A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defense. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking.” He forced Catherine to make a courtesy call on the Ternans; he castigated her when she accidentally received a bracelet he’d meant for Ellen; he forced her out of his house and then refused to speak to anyone in his family who tried to defend her rights as his wife and domestic partner of a quarter century. He shattered his troth with her, and it’s very hard to like Dickens much after you read this section of the biography. Tomalin’s best explanation for his behavior is the one he gave Dostoevsky. Dickens told the younger Russian writer he had two sides to his nature, one of which was evil. The good side was where his good characters came from, he told him, and the evil side created Quilp and Sikes, Squeers and Headstone.[3] Dickens’ evil side came to the fore in his split with Catherine.

After that, he became Uriah Heep, desperately trying to seduce young Nelly Ternan, who was well protected by her mother and older sisters. He wound up supporting the Ternan family in addition to his own, plus maintaining his wife in separate quarters. Eventually he would “know” Nelly as he wanted to, and they would have a secret child who died young in France. All of this is detailed in Tomalin’s earlier book and redescribed here. During his last years, Dickens continued to write but gave much more of himself to dramatic public readings of parts of his novels, which he adapted as monologues. He began to make a fortune as a reader, though his health declined.

Despite gout and heart troubles, he toured America a second time to give readings, and when he returned he shuttled constantly between London and his estate, Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, and between England and France. He and Nelly assumed the name Tringham, and he lived with her as her husband on visits to the house where he’d installed her in a suburb of London. Only one of his sons, Henry, had a successful career (as a lawyer), and several of his boys died young. His daughter Mamie never married, and his beloved Katey didn’t find happiness until her second marriage to an Italian painter. Although he made immense amounts of money in his lifetime, after his death from a stroke in 1870, his legatees squandered what he left them.

Nelly went on to marry a clergyman, with whom she started a school. She lied about her past and her age, and pretended to have been just a child pet of the great novelist. She had two children and a lifelong friendship with Georgina Hogarth, the pet Dickens had made into his household Cerberus. Katey eventually wrote a tell-all story about her father, both the dark and the light sides of him, and then other biographies told more about his secret life. Still, in the end, it’s his works that remain and that matter the most.

The galvanizing force of Claire Tomalin’s biography, in my opinion, is that it makes me want to reread several of his best novels. I’ve a hankering to see Esther again, and Pip, and finally to finish Our Mutual Friend. Dickens was a friend to many, but especially to the world of readers.

[1] CHARLES DICKENS: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. Penguin Press. $36.00. The coffee-table book with lots of great pictures is Charles Dickens at Home by Hilary Macaskill; the latest edition of the letters is an Oxford UP imprint, selected and edited by Jenny Hartley; the other important—though it focuses only on his early years—biography is Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.

[2] There are exceptions. Judith Wilt has made a strong case for the rich, rounded portrayal of Esther Summerson of Bleak House. In personal correspondence with me, Jonathan Arac, another Dickens scholar, has made a claim for Amy Dorrit as a heroine of “remarkable nuance and grit under the tiny, sentimental stereotype.”

[3] The most interesting aspect of this conversation, as reported by Dostoevsky, was his own response to Dickens saying he had both an evil and a good man inside of him: “Only two people?”