Edmund Wilson: Eight Essays (1954)
Can All These Biographies be about the Same Man?
In his celebrated essay "The Two Scrooges," published in The New Republic in 1940, and subsequently collected in The Wound and the Bow (1941), American critic Edmund Wilson claimed to have detected a curious dichotomy in Charles Dickens's work. It is, according to Wilson:
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)
organized according to a dualism which is based ... on the values of melodrama: there are bad people and there are good people, there are comics and there are characters played straight. The only complexity of which Dickens is capable is to make one of his noxious characters become wholesome, one of his clowns turn out to be a serious person. The most conspicuous example of this process is the reform of Mr. Dombey, who, as Taine says, “turns into the best of fathers and spoils a fine novel.”Earlier this year I posted a piece called "The World of Charles Dickens." In it I attempted to give a quick overview of my various collections of Dickens books, films and other ephemera (including jigsaw puzzles). But I only had space there to make a few references to the fascinating - and distinctly vexed - realm of Dickens biography. This is the brief summary I gave:
Michael Slater: Charles Dickens (2007)
There are many biographies. At times it can seem as if the majority even of bookish people are far less keen on reading him than reading about him. The original Victorian biography by John Forster is still an essential source, and I must confess, too, to a soft spot for Edgar Johnson's exhaustive two-volume account of 1952.
Claire Tomalin: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990)
I'm not myself a great admirer of Peter Ackroyd's strange biography-with-fictional-interludes, though it certainly has its moments. A far more significant contribution to scholarship came from Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman: a biography of Dickens's mistress Nelly Ternan, which appeared in the same year, 1990.
Claire Tomalin: Charles Dickens: A Life (2011)
She's followed this up since with a full-dress biography of Dickens, perhaps meant as a riposte to Michael Slater's, also pictured above. Slater is, after all, a bit of a Ternan-sceptic, witness his book The Great Charles Dickens Scandal (2012), which takes issue with many of Tomalin's points.
In any case, whatever your views on this or other contentious points, you won't find too much difficulty in finding material to your taste in the vast untidy field of Dickens scholarship. Even the famously critical Frank Leavis finally decided to admit him to the fold of the 'great tradition' in English fiction.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens' London: An Imaginative Vision. London: Headline Book Publishing PLC., 1987.
- Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd., 1990.
- Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. With Thirty-Two Illustrations. 1872-74. London: Humphrey Milford / Oxford University Press, n.d.
- Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens. His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1952.
- Pope-Hennessy, Una. Charles Dickens: 1812-1870. 1945. London: The Reprint Society, 1947.
- Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. 1983. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1986.
- Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. 2009. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011.
- Slater, Michael. The Great Charles Dickens Scandal. 2012. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2014.
- Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. London: Penguin, 1991.
- Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. 2011. London: Penguin, 2012.
F. R. & Q. D. Leavis: Dickens the Novelist (1970)
Michael Slater: The Great Charles Dickens Scandal (2012)
Having now had time to think (and read) some more on the subject, I'd like to expand a bit on that rather bald account. Who exactly was Dickens? How is it possible for two biographies so thoroughly different as Michael Slater's (2007) and Claire Tomalin's (2011) to be published so hard on each other's heels?
It's not so much the protean nature of Dickens the man I mean to call into question: all of us are complex, contradictory, 'a million different people from one day to the next,' as the Verve's 1997 song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" so memorably puts it.
No, what interests me is the extent to which the 'Dickens' of these books resembles Wilson's analysis, quoted above, of the melodramatic assumptions underlying Dickens' own early work: "there are bad people and there are good people, there are comics and there are characters played straight."
Claire Tomalin (b.1933)
Tomalin, it's true to say, does her best to maintain an even playing field. She begins her own biography with an inspiring anecdote about the lengths to which Dickens was prepared to go to help the poor and downtrodden, when - as a juror on a murder case - he fought tooth and nail for the acquittal and subsequent welfare of a young servant girl accused of killing her own child. Dickens, that is to say, as crusader. And you'd have to be pretty jaded not to be impressed by the sheer extent of Dickens' involvement in the case. He just wouldn't let it go. It was no momentary spasm of indignation on his part, but a lifelong commitment.
Unfortunately, in context, this story simply serves as a prelude to Tomalin's very persuasive portrait of Dickens as a tyrannical husband and neglectful papa - not to mention dastardly seducer. Edmund Wilson, too, highlights these traits, remarking that Dickens seems, at times, "almost as unstable as Dostoevsky."
He was capable of great hardness and cruelty, and not merely toward those whom he had cause to resent ... his treatment of Mrs. Dickens suggests, as we shall see, the behavior of a Renaissance monarch summarily consigning to a convent the wife who had served her turn. There is more of emotional reality behind Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop than there is behind Little Nell. If Little Nell sounds bathetic today, Quilp has lost none of his fascination. He is ugly, malevolent, perverse; he delights in making mischief for its own sake; yet he exercises over the members of his household a power which is almost an attraction ... Though Quilp is ceaselessly tormenting his wife and browbeating the boy who works for him, they never attempt to escape: they admire him; in a sense they love him.For Wilson, Dickens' work as a whole is a haunted palace, full of neglected corridors leading to unspeakable secrets: the very epitome of Gothic melodrama. And he wrote like that because that's how he lived:
Dickens’ daughter, Kate Perugini, who had destroyed a memoir of her father that she had written, because it gave “only half the truth,” told Miss Gladys Storey, the author of Dickens and Daughter, that the spell which Dickens had been able to cast on his daughters was so strong that, after his separation from their mother, they refrained, though he never spoke to them about it, from going to see her, because they knew he did not like it ... “I loved my father,” Miss Storey reports her as saying, “better than any man in the world — in a different way of course. … I loved him for his faults.” And she added, as she rose and walked to the door: “My father was a wicked man — a very wicked man.” But from the memoir of his other daughter Mamie, who also adored her father and seems to have viewed him uncritically, we hear of his colossal Christmas parties, of the vitality, the imaginative exhilaration, which swept all the guests along.Like Scrooge himself, the ostensible subject of Wilson's essay, Dickens sounds like "the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person."
How, then, does Michael Slater deal with all this, in his own comprehensive biography of the author?
Michael Slater (b.1936)
Well, for the most part he ignores it, that's how. From the very first pages of his biography, he makes it clear that it's only really Dickens the Victorian man-of-letters who interests him, and whom he feels qualified to write about.
Professor Slater comments in great detail on the idea of serial publication, pioneered in The Pickwick Papers, and then carried on via a variety of vehicles: the monthly numbers used for such novels as Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and their various successors; but also the succession of weekly periodicals Dickens edited, among them Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-41), home of The Old Curiosity Shop; Household Words (1850-59), where he published Hard Times and A Child's History of England; and, finally, All the Year Round (1859-90), which eventually housed A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Uncommercial Traveller.
That's just the beginning for Slater, though. Amateur theatricals, occasional journalism, travel books, editing jobs such as the great clown Grimaldi's memoirs - all are woven together into a marvellous tapesty of mid-Victorian cultural life. His four-volume annotated edition of Dickens's collected journalism stands him in good stead when it comes to documenting and - above all - making sense of this mountain of circumstantial detail.
This is his crucial break with what might be called the Wilsonian tradition of Freudian (or at least psychoanalytical) criticism, as it's been applied to Dickens since the appearance of "The Two Scrooges" in the 1940s. The first biographer to employ these insights, albeit sparingly, was probably Una Pope-Hennessy in her wonderfully compact Charles Dickens: 1812-1870 (1945).
Edgar Johnson (1902-1995)
The major monument to this tradition would, however, have to be Edgar Johnson's exhaustive two-volume critical biography Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952). Johnson's "life and times" approach - which he applied again, a couple of decades later, to his similarly vast biography of Sir Walter Scott, The Great Unknown (1970) - has been found offputting by some (Peter Ackroyd principal among them). For myself, I love it.
I can see the advantages of focussing principally on Dickens's emotional life, as Tomalin does, or his professional life, as Slater does, but Johnson's system of alternating chapters of pure biography with chapters of analysis of each of Dickens's major works is surprisingly successful. Certainly one emerges from such a reading with a vivid knowledge of each of the novels as well as the minutiae of the novelist's life.
In Slater's terms, Johnson is a 'believer' - one who accepts that Nelly Ternan was Dickens's mistress, and that their relationship was almost certainly a sexual one. So is Pope-Hennessy. And Tomalin, of course, is the high priest of this tradition. Peter Ackroyd, whom I'll come to in a minute, is on the fence. He accepts the evidence of Ternan's importance in Dickens' life, but finds it unlikely that their relationship was ever consummated: his Dickens is far too weird for that. Michael Slater, of course, is the leader of the Denialist school who insists - quite correctly - on the extreme flimsiness of the evidence so far produced for the actual existence of this relationship.
Eppur si muove would be my own conclusion on this vexed matter, thrashed out so thoroughly in so many books over the last century or so. That's what Galileo is alleged to have said as he emerged from the Church tribunal which had just forbidden him to assert as fact the Earth's progress around the Sun: "but it does move, anyway." I just can't bring myself to believe that the whole affair is based on moonshine and a few misunderstood letters. It was too big a scandal to suppress at the time, and salutary though Slater's subsequent attempts to point out the deficiencies of the opposition's case have been, I fear that I would have to award the victory to Tomalin on this one, on points.
Peter Ackroyd (b.1949)
Which brings us to undoubtedly the strangest of all of the modern biographies, Peter Ackroyd's Dickens (1990). Ackroyd's decision to incorporate fictional 'episodes', evocative dreamscapes a little reminiscent of some of De Quincey's opium visions, caused a great deal of comment at the time. Whether or not it's effective, it's certainly different - and while these sections co-exist rather oddly with the rest of his heavily researched text, it can't simply be written off as a failure. There's something in it, though it's not quite clear (to me, at least) just what.
Ackroyd's main innovation as a biographer, though, was his heavy dependence on the backfiles of The Dickensian, the Dickens-enthusiasts' journal which has been charting every minute detail of the Master's work since 1905. This immense heap of articles provided him with ammunition for his demolition of the Johnsonian life-and-times approach. Johnson's research turns out to have been largely library-based, whereas Ackroyd is able to explore both the texts and the landscapes through the eyes of legions of fanatical (and, for the most part, footsore) contributors to The Dickensian.
This does impart a curiously patchwork tone to Ackroyd's text, but given his devotion to psychogeography as a discipline, it also serves to highlight the strange interfusion he posits between Dickens and London, the city that defined him both as an author and a man, expanding in this on his earlier picture book Dickens' London: An Imaginative Vision.
Ackroyd was, however, somewhat handicapped by the fact that the magisterial Pilgrim edition of Dickens' complete letters (12 vols, 1965-2002) was not yet complete while he was writing. All subsequent biographies and scholarship on Dickens have been dominated by this massive piece of research, entailing, as it did, an exact charting of his doings on virtually every day of his adult life. Like his predecessors Pope-Hennessy and Johnson, Ackroyd was still forced to resort at times to the woefully incomplete Nonesuch edition of Dicken's correspondence (3 vols, 1938).
Charles Edward Perugini: John Forster (1812-1876)
Might it be said, in fact, that we know a bit too much about Dickens nowadays? The dichotomy between Slater and Tomalin's work seems a bit less surprising when you factor in the sheer weight of material at a modern biographer's fingertips: as well as those 12 volumes of letters, and the serried rows of back-issues of the Dickensian, there are books and articles on virtually every aspect of his life. One must, in other words, be selective: especially if you're trying desperately to cram your conclusions into a single manageable volume.
Which brings me to the great-grandaddy of all Dickens biographies, John Forster's Life of Charles Dickens (3 vols, 1872-74). Forster was a close friend of Dickens, and supported and counselled him at all stages of his professional life - not always successfully. He was also an accomplished biographer and man of letters in his own right, author of Oliver Goldsmith: His Life and Times (1848) as well as a life of the poet Walter Savage Landor (1868) - reputedly the original for the character Boythorne in Bleak House.
Lytton Strachey: The Illustrated Eminent Victorians (1989)
Ever since Lytton Strachey did his demolition job on Victorian biographies in Eminent Victorians (1918), there's been a reaction against those respectable, four-square, generally multi-volumed Life and Letters which used to be the mainstay of every library. Many modern readers have got out of the habit of reading them at all, assuming that all the interesting stuff will have been edited out of them according to the wishes of the family, and that what is left will be, at best, the record of a whited sepulchre.
I haven't found it to be so. Forster's biography of Dickens is a masterpiece: famously revelatory of the sufferings of his early boyhood, but wonderfully vivid at every turn. It reads, in fact, like a Victorian three-decker - though probably not one of Dickens' own: more like a novel by Trollope or Thackeray. Often he says things so well that, given the fact that he was also saying them for the first time, there was not a lot to be added to his account subsequently.
John Forster: Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74)
If I had to recommend one biography of Dickens, I'd probably recommend Forster's. For myself, I have an abiding love for Edgard Johnson's, but it is very long, and the abridged one-volume version (which is probably the one most people read) doesn't really do justice to his overall concept.
I once met Professor Michael Slater. It was at a conference at Auckland University, some 25 years ago. He gave a wonderful paper on Douglas Jerrold, and proved to be the gentlest, sunniest, kindest gentleman I think I've ever encountered at such an event. There was not the slightest self-vaunting or sidiness about him, though he was certainly keen to expound the merits of the new edition of Dickens's journalism he was then working on. I'm predisposed in his favour, in other words.
If you're interested mainly in Dickens as a writer, then Slater is the biographer for you. His book is tough going at times, but he keeps all the balls in the air with marvellous dexterity, and the painfully accumulated detail all comes home to roost if you're prepared to persevere.
If you're interested - in Wilsonian style - in the tormented genius behind the books, then Tomalin's biography will suit you much better. It's a more mature book in every way than The Invisible Woman - fascinating though the earlier book was, that particular job only needed to be done once. Tomalin bends over backwards to try to understand Dickens' point of view, but he was just a very difficult man to like - unless you were prepared just to sit back and enjoy the show, as so many of his friends and acquaintances were. His family and his business associates did not have that option, unfortunately.
But do any of these books really get us much closer to Dickens himself? You can end up knowing more raw information about him than you know about any other human being you ever met, and still be struck by how mysterious he seems. His innermost personality - even the most important details of his emotional life - seems, in the end (as the poet said of Robert E. Lee), secure from "the picklocks of biographers":
For he will smile
And give you, with unflinching courtesy,
Prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms and orders,
Photographs, kindness, valor and advice,
And do it with such grace and gentleness
That you will know you have the whole of him
Pinned down, mapped out, easy to understand —
And so you have.
All things except the heart.
For here was someone who lived all his life
In the most fierce and open light of the sun,
Wrote letters freely, did not guard his speech,
Listened and talked with every sort of man,
And kept his heart a secret to the end
From all the picklocks of biographers.
Stephen Vincent Benét: from 'Robert E. Lee' (1928)
Robert William Buss: Dickens's Dream (1875)