Melodrama of a Manic Moralist

Book review of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Books Literature
Charles Dickens in 1850: Hell was always just round the corner

The difficulty of writing a writer’s biography is that, almost by definition, once someone becomes a full-time writer he or she stops living, as writing involves a good measure of removing yourself from the world. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life is mostly devoted to charting Dickens’s massive output as a novelist and journalist, a job she does with clarity and  vim. For me, the best biography is one where the biographer steps back and lets the cast speak for themselves: Tomalin succeeds admirably in avoiding fruitless speculation or laboured interpretation of Dickens’s behaviour.

Two modern terms came to mind reading about Dickens: bipolar and hyperactive. Oddly for someone whose job involved him sitting still for long periods of time, Dickens was pathologically restless (he famously walked from London to Rochester on one occasion), constantly prowling the streets on foot and changing addresses as if he were in a competition to live in every town in Britain. He takes on publishing contract after publishing contract, charity gig after charity gig, reading tour after reading tour, and then moans incessantly about his workload.

In her dedication to this new biography, Tomalin lauds her mother and her French grandmother, who were both ardent fans of Dickens. Is Dickens’s readership safe in our e-world, I wondered? One of the most consoling texts I know as a writer is George Orwell’s essay “Bookshop Memories”, recounting his experiences selling second-hand books in north London in the 1920s, an era when there was very little electronic temptation to divert British citizens from the written word. The golden age wasn’t that golden. His customers didn’t want to read Dickens or Austen, Orwell plainly states; they wanted Ethel M. Dell and Warwick Deeping, they wanted pulp.

Although Dickens was immensely popular in his day, my guess is that a lot of his success was due precisely to the elements in his work which now seem inert or dated: the preposterous sentimentality, the melodrama, the “Victorian” morality (although, as Tomalin shrewdly points out, Dickens grew up in the afterglow of Georgian rakery).

Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are fortunately concise novels, but I wonder whether many teenagers now could cope with the rambling expanses of The Pickwick Papers or Bleak House. I suspect Dickens will stay with us, but it will be more because of university syllabuses and moving pictures (the irony of Dickens’s work is that although he was an incorrigible ham actor and his novels have strong “theatrical” elements that flourish brilliantly on the screen, he couldn’t write successfully for the stage — a very common failing among novelists).

The shortcoming that most of us would ascribe to Dickens’s novels, the genius at describing childhood and its fears, yet the strange tweeness and absence of genitalia in his adults, is one of which Dickens was very aware. Dickens was a frequent visitor to France and was jealous of the freedom enjoyed by someone like Balzac, who could depict with much greater candour the sexual escapades of French society.

Dickens was a conspicuous campaigner against social ills, and the modern liberal belief that crime can only stem from a lack of opportunity or justice is writ large in his work and in that of George Eliot. The do-gooders of the Victorian era believed that decent housing, healthcare and education could more or less eradicate evil. 

One wonders what Dickens would have made of our contemporary looters. Where’s the grievance? he might ask. What’s the problem? The free education? The free healthcare? The free housing? The free legal representation? The cheque at the end of the week for doing nothing but watching daytime television?

Dickens was more astute than most liberals. Although he did a lot to help others (and then whinge about it) and indeed set up a hostel for “fallen” women in which he took a close interest, he wasn’t naive. He had a sound knowledge of human nature and understood that some people simply can’t be helped. His hostel was run with firm regulations and those ladies who didn’t or couldn’t abide by them were shown the door.

The blacking factory is the episode in Dickens’s childhood that has become a commonplace, but Tomalin skilfully demonstrates how it exerted a powerful influence on both his behaviour and his writing, the sense that hell is only just round the corner. Driven, difficult, but good company, Dickens mostly comes over well. To borrow a line from J.D. Salinger, he was the sort of writer you’d want to phone up. The shame about Dickens is that he didn’t write one novel for the drawer, for posthumous publication, where he could have shed all concerns about the public and propriety and just concentrated on reality.

The most entertaining moment in the biography is something of which I was completely unaware. Tolstoy was a huge fan of Dickens (he’d have loved the moralising and do-gooding) but Dostoevsky visited Dickens in London in 1862. Somehow I would have wagered that Dostoevsky would come off wittier or at least weirder. Dostoevsky described the meeting in a letter. Dickens explained how the good characters in his novels were a reflection of what he would like to be, and the villains were a slice of his dark side, that there were really two people inside him. “Only two?” queried Dostoevsky.