When a great author dies, he hopes he has secured a lasting legacy. No lock of hair or portrait miniature is required: an author’s work is the greatest possible monument to his life. Such was Charles Dickens’s belief when he wrote his will. And yet, coinciding with the release of The Invisible Woman, the film based on Claire Tomalin’s book about the author’s relationship with Nelly Ternan, a bronze statue of Dickens was recently unveiled in Portsmouth, where he was born 202 years ago.
The Portsmouth sculpture is not the first commission to flout Dickens’s request that he should not be “the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever”. There are busts and monuments in Australia and the US. Some academics have suggested that his words referred merely to arrangements for his funeral in 1870, but where there is ambiguity there is always scope for misrepresentation. Since it is in the hands of the living to interpret the desires of the dead, it is only right that concerns should be raised to ensure that a legacy is not obscured by the very monument intended to preserve it. Too often, a writer’s death has inspired a mythology that detracts from his life’s work — and commemorative monuments must shoulder some of the blame for that. It is now almost impossible to think of Shelley without picturing his death at sea in 1822, a tragedy so steeped in mystery and poetic fallacy that it came to define him. A memorial sculpture showing the poet draped across an altar and mourned by a sea nymph was erected in the late 19th century at University College, Oxford, where he studied before he was rusticated for atheism. Even Shelley’s friend Edward John Trelawny contributed to this singular vision of the writer when he chose to inscribe his gravestone in Rome with words from The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.”
When a writer has achieved the celebrity of Dickens or Shelley, commemorative monuments like these may appear superfluous, and even destructive — an acknowledgement that the written legacy was not enough. But there are no guarantees when it comes to fame. Dickens’s desire for his work to be his sole monument was driven not by immodesty but by hope. No doubt he would have shared the sentiments of Cato the Elder, the great politician of ancient Rome, who said: “I would much rather be asked why I have no statue than why I have one.” Writers since antiquity have cherished the prospect of “fame through all the ages”, but there is no way of knowing how long one’s legacy will endure. It is far easier to justify the erection of a statue in the immediate aftermath of a great man’s death, when the longevity of his record is still unknown, than it is hundreds of years after the event.
Whenever it is produced, a commemorative statue of a writer, or indeed a film, can only ever play second fiddle to the true monument, the writing, for that is its raison d’être. Had Kafka achieved his dying wish that his manuscripts be burned, he would never have been honoured with the bewildering sculptures that celebrate him across his native Prague. “What an effort to keep alive! Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength,” he wrote in his diary in 1914. Perhaps not. But it does require some thought for how well it reflects the legacy it is built to preserve. As we continue to commemorate writers’ lives in art, it is important to remember that.