Men of Letters

Book reviews of The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Jenny Hartley and P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

Robert Low

Although they were polar opposites in character, Charles Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse still had much in common, as their letters reveal. Neither went to university but they never let that hinder their self-education. Both were steeped in the classics; their letters abound with references to their wide and voracious reading. They learned their trade working for the many London magazines that then existed and by virtue of sheer hard work, self-belief and persistence they achieved success as writers at an early age. Neither demonstrated the slightest trace of self-pity despite the setbacks they suffered in youth. Their example might usefully be drawn to the attention of today’s education establishment, who seem afraid to stretch children academically.  

Despite their prodigious professional output, Dickens and Wodehouse were also prolific letter writers. “I must be one of the world’s great correspondents,” Wodehouse wrote in 1946. “This is the the 43rd letter I have written this month, and my monthly average for the last year has been over thirty … I love getting letters, so I get a reward for my large output.” Dickens took to destroying many of his in later life but an astonishing 14,000 still survived, and are collected in the 12-volume Pilgrim Edition, from which Jenny Hartley has had the almost impossible task of selecting 450 for publication in the bicentennial year of his birth. She has done it superbly: they provide a truly revealing portrait of a remarkable man, which will be welcomed by readers understandably put off by the sheer vastness of the Pilgrim Edition. 

Above all, they show Dickens’s manic energy, as he leaps from project to project, throwing out ideas for novels and new magazines, dealing with publishers and printers, usually in exasperation (“I declare before God that your men are enough to drive me mad!”, over a misprint), sorting out family matters, and plunging into all manner of projects of social reform. One such was the asylum for fallen women that he helped to set up with Angela Burdett Coutts, the recipient of some of his most revealing letters about both his public and personal life. Dickens and Wodehouse were great craftsmen and their letters provide fascinating insights into the creative process. As they worked on their drafts, both men would share their thoughts and doubts about plots, characters and how to get round logjams. 

Endlessly restless, Dickens was constantly on the move and some of the most fascinating letters are those from foreign parts, detailing revolutionary unrest in Switzerland, of all places, the beauty of Italy, and life in the United States, which captivated and horrified him in equal measure. What a magnificent reporter he was! His description, in a letter to The Times in 1849, of a public execution, attended by a baying crowd estimated at 30,000 people, shows him at his campaigning best, while his account of the Stapleton train disaster in Kent in 1865, when he rescued his mistress Nelly Ternan and her mother, then tended to the injured and dying, is cool and factual but still perfectly conveys the drama and pathos of the occasion. The letters chart the decline of his marriage and the onset of the depression that afflicted him in his later years but the manic energy continues: the day he suffered his fatal stroke he was upbraiding a reader for his lack of biblical knowledge. 

Both Dickens and Wodehouse were generous with advice to would-be writers and with money. Dickens was always giving handouts to the poor and helping friends such as the artist Daniel Maclise. A letter to another friend, Thomas Beard, in 1842 reveals a complicated stratagem by which he sought to buy a painting  by Maclise for up to 150 guineas without the artist realising Dickens was the purchaser: “I know very well, that if I were to say so, he would either insist on giving it to me, or set some preposterous price upon it, which he can by no means afford to take.” Similarly Wodehouse helped out his old Dulwich schoolfriend and much less successful novelist William Townend for decades, probably out of guilt at having persuaded him to give up art in favour of writing; Wodehouse’s letters to Townend regularly ask him not to let on to his wife Ethel about his secret subsidies. 

Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at the values Dickens and Wodehouse shared: both, after all, were Victorians. Wodehouse was born in 1881, only 11 years after Dickens died, so he had reached manhood and embarked on his career as a writer (while still working in a bank) by the time the old Queen died. However, he thought of himself and his subjects as essentially Edwardian. A fair number of the letters collected and sympathetically edited by Sophie Ratcliffe, an Oxford don, have appeared before but many are previously unpublished. Where Dickens was a public man, Wodehouse was intensely private, as his letters underline. He had a touch of the Bertie Woosters, being as dependent on his his adored wife Ethel as Bertie was on Jeeves. In his letters to her and her daughter Leonora (“Snorky”), whom he adopted and on whom he doted, he is never afraid to display his emotions in a most unexpected way. But in other respects he was tough, businesslike and insightful, particularly in financial matters. He was no fool on politics either, with one notable exception. In April 1939 he blithely wrote to Townend: “Do you know, a feeling is stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present.” It was a feeling that was shared by many more influential figures, but this innocence must have contributed to the disaster that he brought on himself with his Berlin broadcasts recounting his experiences as an elderly intern of the Germans. His letters show how he fully recognised his stupidity but was still baffled that politicians could not see that he meant no harm. After the war he was gratified to learn that American intelligence had for years been using his broadcasts as examples of subtle resistance. 

He was not afraid of being unfashionable. In 1947 he wrote: “Aren’t the Jews extraordinary people … I was totting up the other day and found that, apart from my real inner circle of friends (numbering about three) most of the men I like best are Jews … But, my gosh, what idiots the British Government are. At the very moment when it is vital to have good relations with America they go and pull that Exodus stuff and club Jews and put them behind barbed wire and so on. I should have thought it would have been infinitely better to let the poor devils into Palestine.”

Wodehouse was not above burnishing his own image. When a book of the Wodehouse-Townend correspondence was proposed (it became Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters), Wodehouse wrote to his publisher: “It is hopeless to stick to what I actually wrote. What I must do is to write a lot of entirely new stuff and to hell with whether it is not word for word what I wrote to Townend on June 6, 1931!”  And beneath the genial facade he was a man of strong opinions: “I dislike Rex Harrison on stage more than any other actor … I think Christopher Fry should be shot.”  He had once thought Groucho Marx “screamingly funny”; his television show showed him to be “repulsive”. 

  Sadly, such collections, showing the private side of great writers (and others), may soon be a thing of the past, for who writes letters any more? Will authors carefully preserve their emails, and entrust their disks to their agents? If they don’t we may be deprived of the frank assessments writers privately make of their fellow authors, such as Wodehouse on his great predecessor: “Do you hate Dickens’s stuff? I can’t read it.”

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