In Love with His Public

Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing by Michael Slater

Books Literature

Michael Slater is an acknowledged authority on Dickens; his new biography is the distillation of quiet study and profound knowledge, above all knowledge of Dickens’s writings. The book, indeed, is more an account of Dickens the author than Dickens the man. Slater has chosen to focus “primarily upon his career as a writer and professional author”, drawing out of the shadows the “truly prodigious” body of “other writing” that Dickens was producing alongside his serialised novels — sometimes not under his own name, when he was dodging contractual obligations. “Dickens”, the son of one his long-suffering publishers remarked, “was a clever man, but he was not an honest man.”

Slater’s focus is both very wide and very narrow. It does not exclude, but cuts down on the dramatic impact of, much of the usual biographical material. The well-known outlines of Dickens’s life are there: the childhood in Chatham as the second of the eight children born to an improvident clerk in the Navy Pay Office, a child who read voraciously and felt himself “a not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy”. The shame of his father’s imprisonment for debt, and of the period incarcerated in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, where, as a 12-year-old working a ten-hour day, he became adept at sticking labels on pots of paste-blacking. In grown-up life, however, success came early, with the publication of the Pickwick Papers in 1836. Dickens was a famous author from the age of 24.

Slater covers all the elements, but often assumes that his readers know the basics. He will, therefore, refer in passing to “famous” incidents, such as the “famous” bonfire of Dickens’s correspondence at Gad’s Hill, or Dickens’s “famous” last encounter with Thackeray, where the uninitiated might have relished a little more dramatic detail. He deliberately eschews almost all psychological speculation, which proves remarkably refreshing: his spare, well-judged insights are coolly perceptive, but widely spaced.

Paradoxically, this approach is particularly effective at involving the reader during the period when most biographers strain to immerse themselves in Dickens’s emotional life — in the description of the breakdown of Dickens’s marriage. 

In 1858, Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine, though he continued to live with his sister-in-law. During their 22 years of marriage, Catherine had borne him ten children and suffered a couple of miscarriages and periods of post-natal depression. She became stouter, and prone to what Dickens called “lassitude”. He fell out of love with this middle-aged wife, who appears never to have ceased loving him, and, as so often happens, rewrote his own past to claim he had never loved her. (Pathetically, Catherine requested that his letters to her be preserved in the British Museum, “that all the world may know he loved me once”.)

Dickens had also met a much younger, slimmer, livelier and more intelligent woman — though it is difficult to say whether he fell out of love with his wife because he met the 19-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, or into love with “Nellie” because he had fallen out of love with his wife.

Probably the latter, since he had already responded all too warmly to a letter from his first love, Maria Beadnell — the Victorian equivalent of the social networking website Friends Reunited. The physical meeting was a terrible disappointment. Maria had warned him that she was “fat and toothless”. Alas, this turned out to be true. The reunion did produce the most cruelly funny scene in all of Dickens — when Arthur Clenham (in Little Dorrit) meets his old sweetheart, silly, simpering, middle-aged Flora Finching. But this attempt to revisit the past suggests Dickens was feeling something lacking from his marriage. Slater presents the break-up of the marriage without over-interpreting it. He does not explain away the raw pain of divorce and states clearly what we do not know about the motives and emotions of the participants. This actually makes it more involving. It becomes all too like every divorce one has ever known, in which even best friends are left guessing, through all the bitterness and bias, as to the true state of affairs.

Naturally, as in every divorce, one nevertheless takes sides. Dickens, whatever the deep-rooted excuses for his behaviour (including his manic-depressive restlessness, in which unhappiness was displaced into frenzied activity of all kinds), behaved inexcusably. Poor Catherine discovered only from her maid that he had moved his bed into a dressing room and walled off the communicating door to their shared room with bookshelves. All of Dickens’s statements about Catherine make painful reading for readers who admire him, fraught as they are with obscure accusations, bitterness and repellent self-pity. He even begins publicly to claim that Catherine was a cold and neglectful mother, for which there is no evidence at all — beyond the record of her distress when she was unable to breast-feed her first-born and felt she was failing her baby.

As always in a divorce, the one who says most comes out worst. Dickens, working up a terrific, almost insanely self-obsessed “sense of wrong”, turned, like a modern-day celebrity, to the press. He was furious when Punch refused to publish his “personal” self-vindication — though it is unclear why he thought a humorous magazine would provide a suitable platform. 

But Dickens lived his life through publication and public readings. This is the point of Slater’s book, in which the writing and the public performances take centre stage. Slater ranges with magnificent scope through everything that Dickens wrote — from his first schoolboy letter (already showing a facetious fixation on wooden legs) to the last words he penned, which were “…and then falls to with an appetite”. Slater’s own appetite is never sated. One of the great pleasures of this book is to be reminded of minor characters — such as the voluble Mrs Lirriper. I suspect, though, that if you are not already a Dickens fan, the effect might be rather of standing on the edge of one of those conversations where everyone else is warmly but allusively discussing a group of mutual friends. That, however, was Dickens’s forte — establishing an “unprecedented and warmly intimate” sense of friendship with his readers. The great love affair in this book is not between Dickens and Maria or Dickens and Ellen, but Dickens and his public. He worked phenomenally hard to woo his readers. In 1840 he tried to cut back, but found himself delivering between 26,800 and 33,376 words a month. His other activities would have filled the lives of many ordinary men many times over — torrents of journalism and speeches, energetic editorship of excellent magazines, which he micro-managed to the extent of rewriting many of the contributions of others, charity work, ebullient theatrical shows, cricket, voluminous letter-writing, long and strenuous walks. He revelled in his own “inimitable” energies, exulting when sales of The Old Curiosity Shop reached an extraordinary 70,000 copies a week.

It is usual to end an account of Dickens’s life by saying that his addiction to public acclaim killed him. Public readings of his own works became essential to him, psychologically as well as financially: he never lived life so intensely as when exulting in his power to sway the emotions of the crowds that thronged to hear him. (“…a dozen to twenty ladies borne out, stiff and rigid, at various times”, he boasted after one reading.) But, reading Slater’s book, one begins to suspect that without this outlet the pathologically “restless” heart of this extraordinary genius would have knocked itself to pieces even earlier. Dickens died, worn out, at 58.