Michael Slater’s new biography, Charles Dickens, is subtitled A Life Defined by Writing. It’s a bit clumsy, perhaps, but certainly apt. With The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens became, at 24, an international star. Suddenly he was lauded and adored and in constant demand. In rapid order he produced Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop. The great novels that followed— including David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations—appeared steadily, with scant interruption, over the next three decades. And even as he wrote all of this fiction, Dickens also ran a weekly magazine, Household Words.
As he soared to the top, Dickens came to know nearly all of Britain’s leading writers. A few—Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, essayist Sydney Smith—were his literary heroes. Others, like William Thackeray and humorist Douglas Jerrold, were rivals as well as friends. Dickens collaborated with novelist Wilkie Collins and with W.H. Wills, his longtime journalistic colleague. As an editor, Dickens was forever reading manuscripts and goading contributors, including (at various times) Collins, George Meredith, and Mrs. Gaskell. Meanwhile, “the Inimitable” (as he sometimes called himself) produced a steady flow of essays, editorials, and speeches. His surviving letters fill a dozen volumes. Charles Dickens lived in a world of words.
But Dickens also fathered ten children and, in middle age, pursued yet another career as an actor and theatrical impresario. Along the way, he acquired “troops of acquaintances,” as he once put it: all sorts of people, prominent and not, including physicians, policemen, archaeologists, mesmerists, clergymen, and (during one period) several dozen prostitutes he sheltered and sometimes counseled at the “house for fallen women” that he established with philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts in Shepherd’s Bush.
Not surprisingly, accounts of Dickens’ life tend to run long. Fred Kaplan’s 1988 biography runs to more than 600 pages. Peter Ackroyd, in 1990, almost doubled Kaplan’s total. Slater hits 700, counting notes. Thus Dickens, the great generator of words, has also generated great mountains of commentary. It’s been that way from the start. John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens easily filled two volumes—even though it discreetly passed over whole chapters of the novelist’s story, including the details of his unhappy marriage and his long affair with actress Ellen Ternan.
In the decades that followed, Dickens’ literary friends and several members of his family supplied memoirs of their own. By the late 1940s, the quirks and contradictions of Dickens’ character were more widely known. This was fine with Kate Dickens, the novelist’s eldest daughter, who admired her father but found his widespread idolization unsettling. “Please,” she urged one biographer, “make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch.”
John Forster loved Dickens, his friend of thirty years. Forster’s biography pays tribute to Dickens’ vibrancy and charisma—his “acute sense of enjoyment” and his “boundless resource in contributing to the pleasure of his friends.” No man, wrote Forster, “not a great wit or a professional talker, ever left, in leaving any social gathering, a blank so impossible to fill up.” Forster also salutes Dickens’ industry and reliability: “to no man was more applicable the German ‘Echt.” Dickens was a rock, and “in all of his homes,” Forster writes, there was “an absolute reliance on him for everything. Under every difficulty, and in every emergency, his was the encouraging influence, the bright and ready help. In illness, whether of the children or any of the servants, he was better than a doctor. He was so full of resource . . . that his mere presence in the sick-room was a healing influence, as if nothing could fail if he were only there.”
But Forster also knew another Dickens—an anxious, impatient figure often nagged by a sense of lost opportunities and trapped, apparently, in a headlong race against time. This Dickens was obsessively punctual and tidy and was “not able to live alone,” as Forster recalled. Dickens fiercely sought out the distractions of company and work; moreover, Forster suggests, Dickens’ growing obsession with acting came directly from his need to escape the torments of his own inner self.
As a child, Charles Dickens was often sickly and bookish, but he was also charming and smart—a born entertainer, petted and praised. Then came the great shock: John Dickens, the novelist’s spendthrift father, found himself in debtor’s jail, and Charles was put to work. The golden schoolboy who had assumed, in his childish way, that he would be a gentleman some day, now found himself pasting labels on jars in a boot-polish factory. The whole episode left him resentful, doubtful of authority, and determined to stand forever on his own. Dickens refused to end up like his father. Like many traumatized children, however, he could never quite outrun the fear that, some day, the roof would once again cave in.
“Charlie Chaplin,” Alistair Cooke once wrote, “was Charles Dickens reborn.” In many ways, in fact, the two Charlies were twins. Chaplin’s childhood was similarly disrupted when his alcoholic father disappeared and his mother went mad. Like Dickens, the young Chaplin went to work to support his family and, in time, developed an affinity with the poor and a keen sense of irony. Both Chaplin and Dickens were drawn to the stage and lived for applause. They were caricaturists, satirists, and sentimentalists—masters of pleasing audiences around the world. They were dominating men—small in physical stature but huge in self-regard. They assumed that their great works of popular art would help push along the slow progress of mankind.
But, politically, Dickens was not like Chaplin. Chaplin was a willful naïf who called for a communist revolution from the confines of his lavish estate. Dickens assumed that progress required a prosperous and enlightened middle class. He was much better read than Chaplin, more intellectually curious, and often stated that his novels were built on a foundation of Christian morality. Dickens looked at the world and at himself and—although he avoided using the word—saw the permanent presence of sin. Dickens was complex, but not utterly unknowable. He had the instincts of a bully and the conscience of a saint.
The more one knows about Dickens, in fact, the more readily one spots him in his novels, playing different parts. In David Copperfield he is, of course, the title character—the sensitive little boy who loses his parents and goes largely unguided into a treacherous world. But he is also the book-writing Mr. Dick—a grown man with the tender emotions of a child. He is Little Em’ly, too—eager for adventure and a life of distinction. And he is Steerforth, Little Em’ly’s seducer—the magnetic but fatherless young rake who exploits his popularity and cannot resist the temptation to exploit those who admire him most.
Michael Slater clearly admires his subject. He has spent his adult life reading and thinking about Dickens and lecturing about his books at London University and elsewhere. He is a gifted and careful scholar who is on close terms not only with Dickens’ fiction, journalism, and correspondence, but also with the central events and attitudes of the Victorian age. The result is a book that is well written, clear headed, even keeled. Slater’s biography will stand now as Edgar Johnson’s once did—as the definitive narrative account of Dickens’ crowded career.
Attentive readers of Slater’s book also will be able to assemble the pieces of the puzzle that is Dickens’ personality. It is well-known that in Bleak House Dickens modeled the appalling Harold Skimpole on Leigh Hunt, a minor writer (and major bore) who had long dined out on tales of his days with Lord Byron and other luminaries of years past. Hunt considered himself a friend of the great Charles Dickens—although, as Slater points out, Hunt patronizingly noted Dickens’ “common-place exuberance” in a review of Nicholas Nickleby. Hunt also shamelessly borrowed money from Dickens and every other susceptible patron he could find. Dickens claimed that, ultimately, Skimpole owed very little to Hunt; there was no malicious intent. Still, one wonders: Was Skimpole an act of revenge? Did Dickens deliberately set out to knife an aging, middling writer long past his prime?
Yes, and yes again. Literary London has always been a battlefield, and Dickens was not above the fray. He nursed grudges as well as the next man, and he could be vicious when he felt himself wronged. He never quite forgave his parents, and he grew increasingly unhappy with his wife, Catherine, the mother of his many children. In fact, Dickens’ open disgust with Catherine extended to her parents and other members of her family; they were all, he decided, vile gossips, thankless spongers, or both. Dickens, Slater reports, decided that Catherine had always been “a weak hand” who never “could help or serve my name in the least”—unlike her younger sister Georgina, who served for years as the famous author’s aide-de-camp, indulging the peculiarities of his temperament and, apparently, never hesitating to kiss his ring. Oddly, as his marriage was ending, Dickens began selling off, to autograph collectors, handwritten extracts from David Copperfield that deal specifically with the title character’s bad marriage. This streak of “distressing vulgarity,” as Slater puts it, often came to the fore as Dickens’ marriage came to an end.
None of this means, of course, that Dickens was also Ebenezer Scrooge. He was, in fact, strikingly generous. Moreover, the man who created Seth Pecksniff never made the mistake of declaring himself a paragon of virtue. Instead, throughout his career, Dickens seems to have drawn on the traits he least admired in himself and passed them on to some of his most grotesque characters. Daniel Quilp, the coarse moneylender in The Old Curiosity Shop, was (as Dickens’ friends recognized) an exaggerated self-portrait. So was John Jasper, the choirmaster who, when not attending to church duties in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, frequents opium dens and, it appears, harbors murderous thoughts.
As he wrote his final novels, Dickens was more popular—and more stretched—than ever before. By then, as Slater notes, he had grown accustomed to leading “three distinct lives.” He was the public Dickens, the celebrated creator of unprecentedly popular novels. He also was “the genially hospitable paterfamilias” with his wide circle of acquaintances and friends. But in his third, most private guise, he played “fairy godfather” to Ellen Ternan, her mother, and other members of the Ternan family. For Dickens, the Ternans had become a second family. Photographs of Ellen show a pretty young woman, smart looking and self-possessed. As Slater points out, however, her life with Dickens is almost “a complete blank to us.” Dickens sparkles less and less in his later photographs. The Inimitable, with his three lives, looks weighed upon and worn.
The public’s desire for the jocose and joyous Dickens—the smiling Boz, bursting forth with a blazing Christmas pudding—has always been strong. John Forster discovered this when some reviews of his Life of Dickens voiced disappointment with the high-strung, self-pitying figure the biography sometimes portrayed. Over the years, in fact, Dickens has been especially fortunate in both the number and the ardor of his champions: They have loved his books so much that, whatever his flaws, they have decided to love him, too.
But what, then, of the Dickens who so obviously required the routines and comforts of domestic life but could not abide the marital conventions of his time? Who both pampered and harangued his children? Who kept aloof from high society but craved the company of Bohemian friends and adoring crowds? What of this “darker, more turbulent, and altogether more complex figure” who, Slater admits, has also “come more clearly into consciousness” in recent years? This man has confounded and exasperated previous Dickens biographers, and Slater, perhaps wisely, keeps him mainly at arm’s length. In Slater’s grand, luminous, and attractively old-fashioned biography, it is the public Dickens who still holds center stage.
Brian Murray teaches in the Writing Department at Loyola University Maryland.