Charles Dickens, by Michael Slater, Yale University Press, 720 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300112078
Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens is, according to the blurb, the first major biography of the great Victorian novelist in twenty years, since Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, that is. This is not all that surprising, since little new information has come to light about its subject in that time. Slater’s study represents a more scholarly and less speculative take on the subject than Ackroyd’s. In his preface he writes that it has been his intention to focus on Dickens as a writer, and to this end he gives detailed accounts of the gestation of the great novels and of their critical and public reception. He also pays particular attention to his subject’s other, less well known writings: short stories, travel books, journalism; and occasional poetry, drama and children’s books.
The journalistic work that formed a significant part of the output of Dickens’s later career has been neglected in even the most detailed of previous biographies, but Slater shows it to be among Dickens’s most revealing writing, the “Uncommercial Traveller” pieces from the early 1860s being particularly rich in oblique autobiography. And then there are the letters, now collected in twelve volumes and generously excerpted by Slater, which show all the energy and wit of Dickens’s professional work as well as displaying his mercurial temperament and exacting demands on himself and those around him. Using this abundance of raw material, Slater is able to construct this biography to a great extent on the back of Dickens’s own words. Indeed Dickens wrote so much that it is remarkable he had time for anything else; yet he was very active in many spheres: as editor of popular household magazines, social crusader, amateur actor and twenty-mile walker through the London night. This unquenchable energy propelled him to the height of fame and success, but in later years it turned to a restless dissatisfaction that haunted him and from which he could not escape.
Charles Dickens was born into a comfortable middle class family in 1812. He was, by all accounts, a bright and lively boy and very fond of reading. However the family’s deteriorating financial situation meant that at the age of twelve he was removed from school and sent to work in Warren’s blacking factory in Charing Cross. At around the same time his father, John Dickens, was imprisoned for debt. Dickens later described this period in an autobiographical fragment that emerged after his death, and, slightly fictionalised, in David Copperfield (1850), emphasising the sense of absolute desolation, abandonment and, no less important, social shame he felt at what was happening to him. The importance of this experience in shaping Dickens’s character cannot be overestimated:
No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my misery, cannot be written.
Exact dates are not available, but Slater suggests that Dickens may have spent over a year in the blacking factory, longer than previous estimates suggested. In any case, he found the time to be one of hopeless, unmitigated drudgery, and in adulthood treated it as a dark, shameful secret, speaking of it only to his closest friend, John Forster, and that after Forster had found out through an old friend of Dickens’s father.
John Dickens did eventually sort out his finances, temporarily at least, and Charles was returned to his former life and to education. He entered on both with a new resolve and determination to succeed. At fifteen he became a solicitor’s clerk. From this experience originated his lifelong antipathy to the British legal system, summed up in the famous aphorism from Bleak House (1853): “the one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself”. Not finding law to his liking, he taught himself shorthand and earned his living as a freelance reporter on legal and parliamentary proceedings, becoming particularly adept at the trade. At the same time, he was falling in love with a banker’s daughter called Maria Beadnell; the courtship was to persist for three years, though without success. Her slighting treatment of him was to become another subject on which he dwelt with some self-pity in later years. Miss Beadnell became the model for Dora in David Copperfield, though the eventual course of that fictional romance was very different: Dora reciprocates David’s love, marries him, but in spite of her devotion proves too childish and impractical to be a suitable wife ‑ before dying of a mysterious wasting illness.
His energies not wholly consumed by his job, Dickens began to submit short sketches of London life to various newspapers. The quality of observation and humour of these pieces soon brought him greater attention, which in his twenty-fourth year blossomed into fully-fledged fame with the beginning of a monthly serial called “The Pickwick Papers”, relating the adventures of the preternaturally ingenuous, aging bachelor Samuel Pickwick and his sharp-witted servant Sam Weller, whose impeccably observed cockney speech patterns particularly delighted the reading public. “The Pickwick Papers” became a publishing phenomenon and allowed Dickens to give up his job as parliamentary reporter.
Just as he was beginning the writing of “Pickwick”, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Slater compares his letters to Catherine with those he wrote to Maria Beadnell; those from the earlier affair are full of unguarded passion and high-flown rhetoric while those to Catherine are more matter of fact, even stern: “if you really love me I would have you do justice to yourself, and shew me that your love for me, like mine for you, is above the ordinary trickery, and frivolous absurdity which debases the name and renders it ludicrous”. No doubt he had Maria Beadnell’s “trickery” in mind when he wrote this, and his choice of the quiet, placid Catherine for his wife may have constituted a reaction against Maria’s playful coquettishness. It was a decision he was to come to regret.
Professionally, Dickens’s life is a story of almost unblemished success from “Pickwick” onwards. In one move he had created a new market for serialised novels among the lower classes. For the rest of his life, the circulation of his novels would far exceed that of his contemporaries. Dickens’s audience responded to the fact that he approached writing not as an intellectual or technical exercise but as a means to provoke emotion. The intensity of his nature was such that the creation of immediate emotion was of great importance to him; this is clear from many passages of his personal correspondence, such as the letter to his wife following a private reading of “The Chimes” to friends including the actor William Charles Macready: “if you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power”. There were few things that gave Dickens greater pleasure than the many letters he received from readers telling him how much they had been moved by his work. But his pursuit of cathartically moving climaxes led him to into excesses of sentimentality and crass emotionalism. Some of the passages that most affected the Victorian audience have seemed to later readers overwrought: the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, though it had them weeping in the streets in 1841, later provoked Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that “one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears of laughter”.
But Dickens did not cater to the masses’ taste for sentiment simply to boost sales. He aimed at the moral edification of his readers. As he wrote in the preface to his first novel, referring to himself in the third person as “the author”:
If any of his imperfect descriptions, while they afford amusement in the perusal, should induce only one reader to think better of his fellow men, and to look upon the brighter and more kindly side of human nature, he would indeed be proud and happy to have led to such a result.
This was all part of his grander scheme for the amelioration of the lot of the poor, of whom he said: “I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as their condition, in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming.” To this end, his work not only provided the sentiment and the humour they desired, it also spoke out against injustices with fiery indignation, and was unerring in its identification of cant and hypocrisy among the establishment, denounced with a savage wit.
All of this might suggest that Dickens was a man of progressive social tendencies, but the matter is not so straightforward. Slater gives an interesting account of his hitherto little commented upon relationship with the aspiring poet John Overs, one of his few working class associates. Dickens adopted Overs as a sort of protégé, describing him approvingly as “a straightforward hardworking, earnest man ‑ above his station in nothing but having read and remembered a great many books”. He found him employment as an odd-job man (somewhat to the poor man’s chagrin, Slater notes), and stingingly rebuked him when he complained about his employer. In the preface he wrote for Overs’s humbly-titled collection of verse Evenings of a Working Man, Dickens commended him “for not seeking to climb the social ladder but to exercise whatever small literary talent he might have only to help secure a modest competence for his family”. Also commendable were “the instinctive propriety of his manner, and the perfect neatness of his appearance”
That Dickens’s attitude to the working class was essentially paternalistic is also borne out by his fiction. The master-servant relationship is frequently portrayed: Pickwick and Sam Weller, Nicholas Nickleby and Smike, Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley, David Copperfield and Clara Peggotty. These idealised depictions are characterised by slavish devotion and unquestioning servility on the part of the servant and a benevolent condescension on the part of the master. When the customary happy ending comes, the servant remains content to serve: faithful dedication to a kind master is the loftiest state Dickens allows his lower class characters to aspire to.
As to political ideologies, Dickens believed in none. He consistently sought to show that all ideologies are subject to the same manipulations and distortions. This is most clearly illustrated in Hard Times (1854), his most politically engaged novel, in which he savagely satirises the Utilitarian principles the factory owners use to justify the inhumanity with which they treat their workforce while at the same time portraying the workings of the trade union as equally corrupt. (Slater also cites Dickens’s 1851 article “Railway Strikes”, in which, while expressing sympathy for the workers, he emphatically denies their right to strike.) Hard Times climaxes with the dying speech of Stephen Blackpool, whose honour and decency have found no place in the union; Stephen’s impassioned plea for understanding has no trace of any ideology; he simply asks that “aw th’ world may on’y coom together more, an get a better unnerstan’in o’ one another.” Dickens’s books are peppered with such appeals to our better natures, and they constitute his only solution to the social problems he highlights: the exercise of a basic human decency that must not be adulterated by either rationalist ideologies or materialist concerns.
If Hard Times seems to imply a pessimistic outlook on Dickens’s part towards social change privately he expressed himself even more starkly: “I do reluctantly believe that the English people are habitually consenting parties to the miserable imbecility into which we have fallen, and never will help themselves out of it … I have no present political faith or hope ‑ not a grain.” Nevertheless, his writing at this time was growing ever more socially engaged. He became editor, in 1850, of a new magazine, Household Words, and throughout the next decade he used it as a forum for his social crusading.
Dickens’s passion was to add to the sum of happiness in the life of the common man. To this end, he vociferously opposed the temperance movement. Though personally abstemious, he felt alcohol to be a social good. As early as 1836 the article “Sunday Under Three Heads” had made this case strongly, and with the government proposition for a ban on Sunday trading in 1856 he again took up the cause in the pages of “Household Words”, arguing that such a ban would leave workers with nothing to do on their one free day. Implicit in Dickens’s defence of alcohol is his belief that the life of the low-paid drudge is almost unbearable and that a strong distraction is necessary, a residue of his own short but desperately unhappy experience on the bottom rung of the industrial workforce. And a great part of the aim of Household Words was to provide another distraction, “to teach the hardest workers at this whirling wheel of toil, that their lot is not necessarily a moody, brutal fact, excluded from the sympathies and graces of imagination”, as Dickens stated in the introduction to his first issue.
Dickens was prolific in his journalism for Household Words in the 1850s and its successor, All the Year Round, in the early 1860s, and this is perhaps the most neglected part of his oeuvre. In keeping with the avowed intention of exploring the life through the writing, Slater is punctilious in documenting, it seems, every piece of journalism his subject wrote, and it adds up to a body of work worthy of note in itself, aside from the fiction. Dickens provides dream-like reminiscences of his childhood, biting satire on various public failings, from a lazy and inept civil service to the mismanagement of the Crimean War to the need for sanitary reform; and vivid accounts of London life, gleaned from the long walks that were a necessity to his restless mind: “If I couldn’t walk far and fast I should just explode and perish,” he wrote. Hence pieces like “Night Walks” (1860), a nocturnal journey through the darkest corners of London, written with hallucinatory intensity and culminating in an encounter with a beggar, “a beetle-browed, hare-lipped youth”, a figure from nightmare, invoking mingled revulsion and pity in Dickens.
Professionally, the 1850s were a time of great productivity: he produced Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and wrote much of his best journalism, while the day job of editor provided another outlet for his energies and another source of income, necessary for a man who had so many dependents ‑ not just his ten children but various improvident relatives and their families. Privately, his life was falling apart:
How strange it is to never be at rest, and never satisfied, and ever trying after something that is never reached, and to be always laden with plot and plan and care and worry; how clear it is that it must be, and that one is driven by an irresistible might until the journey is worked! It is much better to go on and fret, than to stop and fret.
Dickens was dissatisfied, tired yet restless. He complained often of his wife’s inability to understand him, until it seemed a separation was inevitable: this duly came in 1858. It was a scandalous affair, accompanied by much speculation that Dickens was involved with another woman. He released a statement indignantly denouncing and denying the rumours. That there was some truth in them however we now know; but the exact nature and extent of his involvement with Ellen Ternan, a penniless actress less than half his age, is still unknown. He met her in the course of staging one of the amateur theatrical productions he had such enthusiasm for and devoted such an inordinate amount of time to; their relationship lasted for the last twelve years of Dickens’s life and was conducted in the utmost secrecy. Slater scrupulously records all that has survived for posterity about the affair: it is not much. He sets down too the unsubstantiated but persistent rumour that Dickens and Ternan had a child. But this period of Dickens’s life is destined to remain partially a mystery given his own secrecy about it. He burned all his letters, and asked his correspondents to burn those he had sent them, though none complied. Through judiciously selected excerpts Slater is able to build up a shadowy picture of a relationship characterised, on Dickens’s side, by guilt and anxiety.
Dickens was perhaps the least reflective, the least self-conscious, of the major novelists of western literature. He was an exuberant, sociable character. Yet in his work from the 1860s we see him engaged on a painful course of self-examination. Little Dorrit’s Arthur Clennam is a middle-aged man haunted by guilt and regret. For the first time in Dickens’s work we meet a protagonist who has actually been scarred by his experience: up to this point all the heroes, from Oliver Twist to David Copperfield and beyond, had faced ill-treatment, neglect and cruelty yet had emerged from it into some dream of middle class respectability and contentment. Only with the break-up of his own marriage did Dickens begin to suspect that society’s formula for happiness was not to be accepted so unthinkingly. Arthur Clennam is the first hero who has turned inward, having not received the emotional sustenance he needs from the outside world. This painful discovery by Dickens was to lead to some of his most profound and powerful work, even as his health and vitality were fading. In Great Expectations (1861), Dickens uses the narrator Pip to explore his own misguided ambitions, to cast a cold eye over the lure of social acceptance, and to explore his own psyche through Pip’s relationship with the convict Magwitch; the meeting between these two forms the unforgettable opening scene of the book, in a foggy cemetery, as Pip regards the gravestone of his parents. His blameless complicity with this outlaw figure leaves a legacy of ineradicable guilt and shame he tries to cast off by ascending in the social world, only to find the error of his attempts to escape himself revealed when he discovers the identity of his mysterious benefactor. Only by renouncing the folly of worldly ambition can Pip come to accept the moral correctness of his childhood sympathy for the hunted convict and recognise for what it is the complacent inhumanity of the surrounding society.
An even more devastating portrait of guilt appears in one of his last published works, the short story George Silverman’s Experiment (1868), which is Dostoyevskian in its depiction of a diseased psychology. The title character’s progress in life is seen to have been dictated by his early experiences; a childhood of want and neglect, a mother who responded to his requests for food by calling him a “worldly little devil” and an adulthood in which he is continually driven to prove his unworldliness to everyone he deals with, engaging in ceaseless self-examination and content only in the most perverse self-denial, though never able to satisfy himself as to his worthiness. If there are few obvious parallels between the life of George Silverman and that of Charles Dickens, such is the story’s intensity of vision and psychological insight, and such was the preoccupation with guilt in Dickens’s work during this period, that one cannot help but feel that it offers some clue to his actual state of mind.
Dickens left few enough clues about the life he was leading in these later years. He continued to keep up a prolific correspondence but its content was more guarded. His relationship with Ellen Ternan meant he could not afford to be too open. As his health failed he continued to work himself hard, adding public readings to his repertoire of commitments and responding to friends’ suggestions that he slow down with: “Too late to say put the curb on … the wrong man to say it to. I have now no relief but in action. I am quite confident that I should rust, break and die if I spared myself. Much better to die doing.” This was what he was resigned to, and what he eventually did, in June 1870 after a day at work on the never to be completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Slater’s biography runs to 623 pages, excluding notes and index, which is relatively short for a book on Dickens. It also contains many photographs and illustrations, some quite unfamiliar. His approach to the life is punctilious and thorough: he documents closely the writing of all the books while generally refraining from offering much critical analysis of them beyond a few passing comments. As a rule he is more given to fact than theory, which can lead to a certain lack of character in the writing. This contrasts with Ackroyd’s biography, which contained much in the way of speculative theorising. Slater’s is the more trustworthy book, giving as full and fair a picture of Dickens as can be hoped for while to a great extent leaving it up to the reader to interpret his actions and try to reconcile the different sides of this man of boundless energy and extraordinary powers who came late to self-knowledge and never to self-acceptance, and who came to believe, as he wrote in an epitaph for his friend Walter Savage Landor: “The life of any man possessing great gifts would be a sad book to himself.”
Mark Wallace is a native of Galway, an arts graduate of NUIG and an aspirant journalist.