Great contradictions

Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, Viking, RRP£30, 576 pages

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, RRP£20, 389 pages

Dickens’s Women: His Great Expectations, by Anne Isba, Continuum, RRP£14.99, 184 pages

The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens falls in February next year. A procession of volumes to mark this anniversary has already begun, inviting us to ask why this verbally extravagant and often melodramatic novelist has exerted such a hold over the imagination of readers.

Dickens is a cardinal representative of the age in which he lived. His writings shape our perception of Victorian London; even his detractor Walter Bagehot conceded that in his evocation of London life he was “like a special correspondent for posterity”. And his characters – from Scrooge and the Artful Dodger to Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep – have become avatars of Englishness.

The word “Dickensian” calls to mind not so much the man or the characters he created as the world those characters inhabit: on the one hand a scene of red-nosed comedy and zany good cheer, yet on the other a grimy, impoverished society full of abused children, wrangling lawyers, sadistic teachers and watchful effigies. Claire Tomalin’s biography begins with a “cast list” of the people Dickens knew, and these real-life characters are as tantalisingly diverse as the ones in the novels: struggling musicians, child actresses, dancers, prostitutes, hypochondriacs, philanthropists, dandies and heiresses.

It is hard not to be seduced by this mixture – in both the life and the work – of the heartily comic and the graphically grotesque. A fondness for it informs many of the bicentenary tributes. Books are only part of this pageant, which will include exhibitions, readings, plays, conferences, a new film of Great Expectations starring Ralph Fiennes, BBC adaptations of that novel and also The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a spoof drama entitled The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, and a host of more arcane events, including a Dickens festival in China and a half-marathon for Dickens-lovers organised by Rice University in Houston, Texas.

The two most significant of the new books are by Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Whereas many previous accounts of Dickens’s life have been oppressively long, these are satisfyingly crisp. Tomalin is a calmly confident biographer whose previous literary subjects have included Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys. Here she does a humane job of capturing Dickens’s complexities. Douglas-Fairhurst is an Oxford academic, author of Victorian Afterlives (2002), in which he reproduced the cultural atmosphere of the 19th century. Becoming Dickens is his first book for a non-specialist audience. It examines Dickens’s invention of his identity as a novelist, and considers what he had to abandon in the process.

Tomalin suggests that Dickens “left a trail like a meteor”. Those who engage with his legacy encounter many different versions of him: the radical, the republican, the mesmerist, the sentimentalist, the protector of orphans, the lover of circuses, the despairing father. But above all, in her view, “he set nineteenth-century London before our eyes and ... noticed and celebrated the small people living on the margins of society”.

Douglas-Fairhurst offers a somewhat different perspective. He reflects that: “No writer seems to hold fewer surprises. No subject seems better suited to the reassuring certainties of biographical hindsight.” This is because Dickens’s name has become wrapped in myth. Douglas-Fairhurst urges us to “unlearn much of what we know”. For him, the self-promoting, irrepressibly vivacious novelist is often, even if only half-visibly, “a sad, strange figure”.

Myths have accumulated around Dickens because he was a hugely popular writer. Restlessly energetic, he craved friendship and admiration. Douglas-Fairhurst describes how he “worried ... productively about the relationship between popular fiction and its audience”. Dickens wanted his readers to be steeped in the world he had created. On the page and in person he was forever giving the impression that he was taking his fellow citizens into his confidence. His enthusiasm for theatre inspired lucrative public readings, which according to Tomalin “reduced whole audiences to unspeakable states”.

Especially adored was A Christmas Carol (1843), in which Dickens embalmed an ideal image of the Yuletide festivities as an opportunity for family gatherings suffused with hope and cheer. Hard though it may be to believe, he revived interest in the festival at a time when it was in decline. It is far from absurd to dub him The Man Who Invented Christmas.

While this is exactly the sort of corny tag that Douglas-Fairhurst wants to expunge, one suspects that Dickens would have appreciated it. He was pleased when his creations took on a life beyond the page. Indeed, as Douglas-Fairhurst shows, he felt the need to keep them alive and, instead of drawing a line under their stories, favoured open endings.

But Dickens would have been alarmed to see so much scrutiny of his activities beyond writing. Since his death in 1870, he has been the subject of nearly a hundred book-length biographies. The first of these was by John Forster, portrayed by Tomalin as an “essential” friend, erudite and courteous yet “no puritan”. Its first volume, which appeared in 1872, shockingly revealed that Dickens’s father had been confined to a debtors’ prison and that, aged 12, Dickens had contributed to the family finances by working in a factory where he pasted labels on to pots of boot polish.

Forster’s account of Dickens’s life is a sympathetic tribute, but it has been superseded. Among recent attempts to reach deeper into the hive of the past, Michael Slater’s 2009 account stands out – the fruit of an entire career immersed in Dickens’s writings. Very different, and now reissued in an abridged form, is Peter Ackroyd’s immense effort dating from 1990, in which the orthodox version of events is supplemented by fictional fantasies – among them a meeting between Dickens and his character Little Dorrit.

Tomalin’s biography is neither as rigorously compendious as Slater’s nor as idiosyncratically so as Ackroyd’s. Its main virtue is her deft way with story: she makes even the drab departments of Dickens’s life seem full of interest. Her approach is clear, her style efficient, her judgments acute. She drives her narrative along briskly, with dabs of colour here and there. We are never overloaded with details or moralising commentary. The tone is tolerant, though not indulgent.

She proves most vigorous when writing about Dickens’s infatuation with the actress Ellen Ternan – known to posterity, inasmuch as she is known at all, as Nelly. Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman (1990) brought this graceful, elusive figure out of the shadows, arguing that, even as Dickens championed family values, he enjoyed a secretive, magical relationship with her that defined the last dozen years of his life.

Reflecting on that period here, Tomalin admits: “You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened.” Consumed by romantic dreams, Dickens humiliated his wife Catherine – even pointedly having a partition erected in their bedroom, to show that he was rejecting the warm proximity of the marital bed. Meanwhile, though he had to divide himself between many commitments, he treated Nelly with devotion.

The precise nature of Dickens’s relationship with Nelly has long been a source of anxiety and speculation. Tomalin, who writes with sensitivity about the darkness that clouded Dickens’s final years, is less wary of venturing intelligent speculations about it than other, more cautious biographers, and concludes that the liaison produced a son, who died in infancy.

In this, Tomalin is at odds with both Slater and Ackroyd. But she has an ally in Anne Isba, who in Dickens’s Women writes that Nelly “almost certainly” became Dickens’s mistress and “probably” bore him “at least” one child.

Isba’s small volume is one of the many other books published to coincide with the bicentenary. Their sheer range suggests Dickens’s inexhaustible capacity to excite not only biographical speculation, but also historical delving and imaginative chutzpah.

Among the weightier contributions are a critique of his relationships with music and musicians and a study of the impact of rail travel on his works; among the more sprightly ones are a zombie version of A Christmas Carol and a self-help book titled What Would Dickens Do?

For the comparatively restrained yet dexterous Douglas-Fairhurst, it is not so much a case of “What would Dickens do?” as of “What did Dickens avoid doing?” The question “What if?” hums in the background throughout his lucid narrative.

He is not concerned with the later phase of Dickens’s life, the years of fame in which he could make £19,000 – more than £1m in today’s money – out of a 76-date American book tour. Instead he concentrates on the 1830s, when Dickens was in his twenties and trying to “work out what kind of writer he might yet become”.

There is a keen sense here of the writer choosing a path through life – and of how easily he might have led an existence more like that of the less fortunate figures depicted in the novels, such as Jo the crossing sweeper in Bleak House or the clerk in Our Mutual Friend who is portrayed as part publican, part rat-catcher.

The attention Douglas-Fairhurst pays to Dickens’s writing is microscopic. It gives him an unexpected, privileged access to the textures of Dickens’s life. He rightly makes a good deal of the suicide of Robert Seymour, an illustrator with whom Dickens initially collaborated on The Pickwick Papers. When Seymour shot himself, Dickens “wasted no time mourning”: he was now able to assume full responsibility for the book, and the businesslike way in which he did so was undiplomatic but profitable, implanting him in the public consciousness.

The Dickens that emerges here is a mass of contradictions. For instance, he takes pleasure in being recognised in public but regards celebrity as a form of captivity. He is an “inveterate home improver”, addicted to an almost suffocating degree of hospitality, yet sees the home as a fragile place, full of hazards and clogged with unwelcome visitors. Typically, he reserves his sharpest mockery for ideas that attract him. Instead of striving to shrink the paradoxes of Dickens’s personality (or prune them), Douglas-Fairhurst savours their ambivalence.

Becoming Dickens and Tomalin’s vivid, fresh biography work best read in tandem. Anyone looking for an accessible introduction to Dickens could do no better than read Tomalin. But Douglas-Fairhurst has produced a remarkable study of what he calls “biographical tipping points”. It leaves us with an impression of the novelist’s inventiveness, as well as his ability to create characters who bubble with a vitality that is manifest even in their unusually expressive names. At the same time, it suggests how crucial luck and opportunism were to Dickens’s success.

It is common to claim that biographers are “novelists without the imagination”. In fact, this is exactly what Dickens says when he meets his biographer in one of Ackroyd’s fictive interludes, before adding that all the same “some of my best friends are biographers”. In their different ways, Tomalin and Douglas-Fairhurst give the lie to the first of these assertions, while richly substantiating the second.

Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English’ (John Murray)

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