The very name ‘Charles Dickens’ evokes feelings of warmth, love, laughter, and happy endings –as, indeed, this great author did in his own life. Two hundred years after his premature death, his works are still in print, and unfailingly continue to evoke the same feelings in new and old readers. How remarkable is this is in a man who, from the moment of his birth, had barely more than half a century to live? How much more remarkable this is, too, in a man who, during his short life, somehow knew to squeeze out and cram as much Life as possible into them –and managed it! One of his rewards for such a well-led life may be that, unlike many artists, and despite brilliant contemporaries1, he not only grew rich from the fruits of his labour, but lived to see his popularity rise during his lifetime, take off and even settle to one of the highest ever before witnessed. I love Charles Dickens –I always have, from childhood, and the moment of my introduction to “Oliver Twist”. But how much more do I love him now, suddenly and afresh, having read his biography, “Charles Dickens, A Life”, by Claire Tomalin. Among other things, this biography is clear about how hard Charles Dickens went In Hot Pursuit of Happiness, and this uninterrupted quest alone has brought me hope, and great happiness!
When Charles was a boy, he lived in many places around England, of which Kent was his favourite. One day, he enquired of his father about a house he saw on top of a hill, there, and adored. Given such information as any father would briefly give his son, especially if he is impecunious, Charles declares that, someday, he will own it. Someday came, and Charles bought the property. He loved it as much when he bought it as he did when he was a child and, if his wishes had been followed, would have been buried within it. In fact, his quest for renown as an author had already overtaken him in his twenties, and by the end of his life, he was no longer allowed to have personal wishes and desires; he had belonged for quite a long time, not only to himself, but to England, and would be buried, as had many of England’s greats, in Westminster Abbey. It is a fact that he would have detested, but is easily considered appropriate, as a nation’s grateful recognition of one of her own.
Charles is universally declared handsome, and all portraits of him show this to be the truth; yet no one can firmly decide on the colour of his eyes, which have been reported to be black, brown, hazel, blue, and greenish-grey! Though handsome and talented, Charles had several issues, as do all of us, one of which was wanderlust. He could never stay in one place for long, and aside from moving continually around England, managed to visit America extensively, and Canada, as well as live in Italy, France, and Switzerland for long periods –though even there, he moved around. He detested America, and loved France so much, he became quite the Francophile, learning the language and becoming quite a good French correspondent. In a period of just three years, late in his life, he crossed the Channel to France at least 68 times! His father is likely to have instilled this restless behaviour in him, though he moved around England, even within London, for a very different reason, during Charles’ childhood; he was always in debt, and moved to escape his creditors.
Charles moved for many reasons, ranging, from work to holiday-making, from convalescence to respite or escape; from the need for rest for himself or his wife, to the urge to visit and experience new things; from boredom to increasing restlessness of spirit; from the need for peace, to too much peace! And once, it must be said, because, like his father, he had creditors after him. But wherever he moved, he wanted his friends with him, and, remarkably, because he had the rare ability to easily draw good friends, and instinctively form such great friendships, one or the other never failed to come to him, even when he was out of the country. He must have been a good friend, as well as a fascinating man. Indeed, he named his children for his friends, selected godfathers from among them, and dedicated his books to them. Yet this man was not ‘an open book’, about the deepest of his concerns. He freely fretted to them in those periods during which he suffered the writer’s usual insecurities about his work. He writes letters about how he may never write successfully again, about a book’s refusal to come together, or come at all, about the reception given to his latest effort, about being forgotten… almost comically, but hilarious now, when his characters are still very much alive, and his very name is still every day on someone’s lips! He opened up about his childhood only to one friend, Forster, whom he eventually charged with writing his biography, and who honoured this by producing it –in three volumes. Incidentally, he met Forster after reading a critical review written by him about one of his works –which made him laugh. Upon meeting the critic, it was apparently instant chemistry. Forster was embraced into the Dickensian buxom, and I don’t think he ever recovered from the pleasure!
Perhaps due to the chaos of his childhood, another issue of Charles’ is his obsession with neatness and organisation. With a touch of OCD, he rearranges hotel rooms and all of the houses he ever enters into for a stay, just so. In his own home, he checks the children’s quarters daily for cleanliness. Opening up to Forster also reopens, for him, the box in which he has neatly placed his most unpleasant childhood memories –and these will give birth to his greatest work, and personal favourite, “David Copperfield”.
Going out with Charles was as much an adventure for himself as it was for his friends. While they frequently ended up in the theatre, which was his passion, they might have began the evening with a long stroll (Charles was a rabid, compulsive walker) marked by a visit to a prison, or to establishments literally at the fringes of society, where he loved to chat with prostitutes, thieves and other miscreants, amongst who he often found fodder for characterisation. He also has a curious fascination for morgues, especially Parisian ones. He was a powerful observer, and loved characters, and the absurdities of his fellow human beings, whatever their status in life. He was always on the go, and to his very last breath, though ill and uncomfortable in body as well as mind2, always busy, always working, ever travelling, observing, experiencing, sampling, enjoying, and in pursuit of the next thing.
Charles also had a special spot for family, which, if it isn’t always a loving place, is always a dutifully committed place. From young adulthood, he regularly pays up his father’s often illegally wrangled debts, no matter how angry they make him. Later, he will similarly bail out his brother Fred, who, like their father, will nevertheless undergo a spell in jail3. He buys his parents a house, has one or other of his many younger siblings living with him, or tries to find them a job. He marries young, and remains faithful (until his ‘fall’, in his mid-forties4) because he is consciously not one for whoring, unlike most of his contemporaries, who treat adultery as a sport. He is deeply and ever conscious of societal divisions, consciously using his status and power as a writer to frequently speak out and write about the horrible conditions of the poor, handicapped and disadvantaged. He works hard to help, personally intervening to assist the widows of acquaintances and their children, and saves many lives; one, literally, from the hangman’s noose, after influencing an entire jury. He was not impressed with or puffed up by royal notice or meetings with Heads of State, whom he treated rather less cordially than he would anyone else. The love of his readers was all he sought, and any manifestation of it satisfied him profoundly5. A man, in short, tout à fait comme il faut. His priorities and his heart are in the right place, which is yet another rare and remarkable thing. Ultimately, however, his family life was rather a sad disaster on all fronts, and, to the last, he was stressed, financially and emotionally, by the numerous and ever increasing number of dependents that surrounded him, whom he more or less despised.
It is no wonder that Ms Tomalin6 has spent so much of her own life searching for every detail of Dickens’. The fascination is understandable, and has resulted in a great treasure trove of information for the rest of us Dickens lovers.
1) Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Brontë (just starting out, with Jane Eyre), Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Emerson, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Eliot and Sand…
2) He was lame with gout, experience multiple physical aches and pains, and was often depressed.
3) Charles eventually turned his back on this favourite brother. Fred died alone and penniless, and Charles, who unfailingly ran to the funerals of cherished acquaintances, and friends’ sickbeds, and pushed through the agonies of his physical ailments to avoid disappointing his public at live readings; did not bother to attend his funeral. He sent his eldest son Charley instead, to represent him.
4) He became infatuated with Ellen (Nelly) Trenan, an 18-year old actress, struggled with his feelings, then abruptly left his wife, after greatly, and abhorrently mistreating her (probably due to guilt.) Though he did everything but ask for a scandal through his subsequent, emotional, ill-judged, and bad handling of the situation, he somehow managed to get away with little more than murmurs and rumour. He spent the rest of his life with Nelly, which part of his personal life he viciously protected, and managed so well, that almost everything about their relationship to date has had to be deduced or guessed at. This includes speculation on whether or not they had a child together, a boy that died either in infancy or early childhood –at the time he left Catherine, his wife of 22 years, he had impregnated her no less than 10 times successfully (though after the third child, he looked upon each additional birth with increasing dismay), and a couple more times that had resulted in miscarriage.
5) It seems that the papparazzi were well up and already at it in the 1800s, in America. When the eagerly awaited author visited the country for the first time, one of the things in the extensive list of those he detested about it was the fact that he was practically mobbed into immobility, wherever he went, by both press and fans. His adoring public was rather too much of a good thing, in this case! When he returned to England, he wrote a scathing review of what he had found, including slavery. Boston was his favourite American city.
6) This author has such a talent for detail, that she has even researched what an anal fistula is, and how it is treated! Charles suffered from one just before his marriage, and underwent a successful surgery. All of the detail is appreciated, especially as it is so skilfully written up in excellently simple English, so easy to devour. The tone of the book is also just as it should be; informative without being heavy or overbearing, interesting, well-paced, and well-balanced. Very much worth adding to one’s library.