Yale University Press, $35, 696 pp.
In an 1841 letter, Charles Dickens claimed that his greatest ambition as a writer was “to live in the hearts and homes of home-loving people, and to be connected with the truth of truthful English life.” No other novelist of the era was so at home within his readers’ affections. Dickens’s fans felt an unshakable connection to his characters: after the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop appeared in England, American crowds famously gathered at the pier in New York City, greeting a British ship with cries of “Is Little Nell dead?” (She was.) In an 1848 preface to Dombey and Son, Dickens thanked readers for “the unbounded warmth and earnestness of their sympathy in every stage of the journey we have now concluded.” Dickens took seriously this communal “we,” the personal bond forged among reader, writer, and character. When concluding a novel—a process that often involved a pathetic death or two—Dickens was inevitably as distraught as his readers. For both, a family member had died.
It is altogether appropriate, then, that Michael Slater, a scholar who obviously feels a deep love for Dickens, has written what will surely be the definitive Dickens biography for years to come. The ideal literary biography involves a delicate balancing act between work and life, showing how one reflects and refracts the other without resorting to reductive psychologizing. Slater almost perfectly achieves this balance. We emerge from the book feeling that Dickens and his writing have been enriched, not explained away.
The facts of Dickens’s life are well known. He was born on February 7, 1812, in Hampshire, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. After an idyllic couple of years spent in Chatham, the family moved to London. Dickens’s father, a clerk with a tendency to extravagance, was arrested and thrown into the Marchelsea debtor’s prison. The twelve-year-old Charles was forced to work ten-hour days pasting labels onto cans of shoe polish, visiting his family in prison on Sundays. This familial tragedy, known to only a few of his closest friends until after his death, helped create in Dickens a profound feeling of sympathy for the poor and exploited.
In 1834, Dickens found work as a parliamentary reporter. Others soon recognized his skill in portraiture, and Dickens began writing humorous sketches of London life under the pen name “Boz.” After accepting a job as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, Dickens started a series of sketches starring Mr. Samuel Pickwick, a corpulent, kindly Englishman who bumbles his way from adventure to adventure. The series was a runaway hit. Dickens followed The Pickwick Papers with Oliver Twist (1837–1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841). All were published in serialized form, and all were wildly successful. Dickens became a bona fide celebrity, inundated by fan mail, hounded while on vacation by adoring readers.
Slater makes the bold decision to focus a good deal of attention on Dickens’s non-novelistic writing. He closely examines texts that even the most devoted Dickensians may not have read: the sketches that Dickens wrote as “Boz” early in his career; his screeds attacking poor public sanitation and Sabbath laws; his speeches and fundraisers and amateur theatricals; his autobiographical musings published in the various periodicals that Dickens edited throughout his life. These essays contain gems of descriptive prose. In an early piece, Dickens describes a man at a dignified ceremony who couldn’t wait any longer to eat his lobster: “The example was contagious, and the clatter of knives and forks became general. Hereupon, several gentleman, who were not hungry, cried out ‘Shame!’ and looked very indignant; and several gentlemen who were hungry, cried out ‘Shame!’ too, eating nevertheless, all the while, as fast as they possibly could.” One could imagine this skewering of hypocrisy appearing in the Veneering scenes of Our Mutual Friend, and this is Slater’s point. Dickens’s journalism was not just a side job to make extra money (although it was that as well); it was a testing ground for subjects, styles, and characters. With chapter titles like “Writing Bleak House” and “Writing ‘For These Times,’” Slater signals that he is most interested in the actual, painstaking process of writing. Bleak House did not emerge out of the ether; it arose from Dickens’s sketches of city life as “Boz,” from his careful plotting of event and character, and from the serial form itself. It is a testament to Slater that, despite this close examination of the nonidealized genesis of the writing, he never strips Dickens’s novels and characters of their vitality.
Vitality is perhaps the guiding thread of the book, both in Dickens’s life and his characters. The Artful Dodger, Wemmick, and Mr. Pancks, all secondary characters, are singular in their energy and aliveness. They exist at the highest pitch of intensity: as E. M. Forster said, Dickens’s characters may be flat, but they vibrate. Some, like Henry James, have criticized Dickens for his mawkishness and sentimentality. It is precisely this cartoonishness, however, that makes Dickens’s characters seem alive. Their energy is so concentrated, their vitality so tightly wound, that they have the appearance of motion in a way that three-dimensional characters could not.
In this case, character and creator reflect one another, as Dickens’s own energy was staggering. Slater tells us that, in one four-week period, Dickens wrote scenes depicting, in order: the horrors of child labor (for Oliver Twist), a humorous and climactic trial (for Pickwick), a maudlin pauper’s funeral (Oliver), and a society soiree at Bath (Pickwick). He challenged contemporaries like Thackeray to try to keep pace, and as an editor he solicited work from Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and others. Dickens was not just productive himself; he was the cause of productivity in others.
Dickens was ever cognizant of his relationship to what he called his “literary brethren.” In 1851, he helped set up the “Guild of Literature and Art,” providing insurance for writers down on their luck, and he also organized numerous plays to benefit the families of deceased artists. In 1840–41, while editing the weekly Master Humprhey’s Clock and writing both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, Dickens sent a series of long, intelligent letters of criticism to Robert Horrell, an unknown clerk with poetic aspirations who had sent Dickens some of his verse. Slater speculates that there were dozens more like Horrell.
While Slater’s admiration for Dickens is obvious, he does not shy away from the writer’s personal failings. In 1858, Dickens separated from his wife Catherine after falling in love with the teenage actress Ellen Ternan. For the rest of his life, Dickens’s treatment of Catherine was unkind, occasionally even malicious—at various times, he accused her of a lack of affection, maternal indifference, even mental instability. We still don’t know the precise nature of Dickens’s relationship with Ellen, but we do know that he helped support her and her family for the rest of his life. In his will, Dickens defiantly mentioned Ellen’s name first, bequeathing to her a handsome legacy. Catherine was perfunctorily dismissed in a sentence.
Slater, a stickler for facts, does not guess at the mysteries that have tortured Dickensians for so long. Did Dickens and Ellen ever become lovers? How was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, supposed to end? After alluding to the darker, more tragic side of Dickens, Slater ends his book by saying, “But that, as the saying goes, is another story.” Like a Dickens novel, Slater’s biography is an exercise in affection, here between a novelist and his biographer. Barring new revelations about Ellen Ternan, we won’t need another biography of Dickens for a good long while.