Beneath a host of characters lay a writer akin to Shakespeare

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, November 5, 2009


A Life Defined by Writing

By Michael Slater

Yale Univ. 696 pp. $35

It's the sheer energy that astonishes. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) began to publish the monthly chapters of what became "The Pickwick Papers" (1836-37) when he was only in his mid-20s. This was immediately followed by "Oliver Twist" (1837-39), which actually started appearing in magazine form while serialization of "Pickwick" was still going on. Thus the young writer was bringing to a close the greatest picaresque comic novel since "Don Quixote" and almost simultaneously creating the piteous Oliver ("Please, sir, I want some more"), the grotesque Fagin and the murderous Bill Sikes.

But then Dickens was the ultimate workaholic multi-tasker. As Michael Slater shows in this magnificent account of "a life defined by writing," Dickens was somehow able to produce one masterpiece after another; oversee major magazines (Bentley's, Household Words, All the Year Round); turn out a steady stream of essays and muckraking journalism; speak at fancy banquets and act in amateur theatricals; write hundreds of letters to friends, business associates and admirers; read and analyze in detail the work of would-be novelists; help organize guilds for writers and homes for wayward girls; support an extended family (parents, 10 children, various in-laws and relatives, a mistress and the mistress's mother); travel to America, Italy, Switzerland and France; co-author plays in which he starred (most famously, "The Frozen Deep," written with Wilkie Collins); and, at the end of his life, present the most famous dramatic readings of all time: When Dickens, dressed in immaculate evening clothes, re-created Bill Sikes's murder of the prostitute Nancy, his prompt-copy famously said, "Terror to the end." Women in the audience fainted dead away and men broke down and openly wept.

In English literature, only Shakespeare rivals Dickens's imaginative fecundity. Just start listing some of his characters: the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, the deluded Miss Havisham, the repulsively unctuous Uriah Heep and, of course, the improvident yet ever upbeat Mr. Micawber, for whom something is bound to turn up. But there are scores of others, from Mr. Pickwick's servant Sam Weller and the arch-hypocrite Pecksniff to the self-sacrificing reprobate Sydney Carton ("It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done") and the almost Shakespearean comic nurse Mrs. Gamp. After encountering them, moreover, does anyone ever forget that model for all government bureaucracies, the Circumlocution Office, or the endless legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce or the death of Little Nell, which in its time produced near mass hysteria?

Considered as writing alone, Dickens's prose is so rich, varied and untrammeled that James Joyce himself would envy it. The man could take a simple signature phrase for a minor character -- such as "Barkis is willing" or the Fat Boy's "I wants to make your flesh creep" -- and make it simultaneously comic, touching and immortal. He could describe a thick and smothering London fog so powerfully that a Cornell professor named Vladimir Nabokov could spend an entire hour on the author's subtle artistry (and did: see Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature"). Not only a great creative imagination, though, Dickens was also a social crusader, regularly lashing out at human callousness and injustice. In "Bleak House," for instance, the little crossing-sweeper Jo has been given nothing at all by life; indeed, he hears the Lord's Prayer for the first time only as he dies. After which, Dickens lets us have it:

"Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day."

Charles Dickens himself was born the son of a minor government official who eventually fell on hard times and ended up spending some months in a debtor's prison. During that period, his bookish son was sent out to work among the rough lads of a blacking factory. The mature Dickens kept all this past hidden from his contemporaries, never quite realizing that it had provided him with the best education he could have asked for: During those hardscrabble years, he truly learned about life and about London life, in particular. As Slater reminds us, Dickens always drew enormous energy from just wandering the streets of the monstrous and teeming metropolis.

There have been plenty of previous biographies of England's greatest novelist, most notably the early life by his friend John Forster, the once standard scholarly account by Edgar Johnson (in two volumes) and the detailed, idiosyncratic and best-selling "Dickens" by novelist Peter Ackroyd. None of those books is short, nor is this one. Yet Slater's new biography actually feels somewhat austere: Slater sticks to the known Gradgrindian facts, emphasizes the writing and public performances, seldom goes in for much scene-painting or gratuitous anecdote, and refuses to speculate unduly without evidence, whether about Dickens's intimate relations with the young actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan -- did they have an illegitimate son, as has been frequently suspected? -- or about the resolution of his last, unfinished book, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

But Slater's calm march through the life and work of "this very strange genius" consequently feels completely trustworthy, as befits a scholar who has been a past president of both the International Dickens Fellowship and the Dickens Society of America. He repeatedly underscores what Dickens called the "strict attention, perseverance, and exertion" that the writer brought to all his work, including his topical journalism and the brilliant if comparatively little-known essays collected as "The Uncommercial Traveller." Individual chapters, and long ones at that, are devoted to the composition of each of the major books, in particular the panoramic "condition of England" novels of the author's later years: "Bleak House," "Little Dorrit" and "Our Mutual Friend."

Throughout his pages, Slater periodically insists that Dickens's greatest love wasn't Maria Beadnell, who rejected him when young and then reappeared in middle-age having grown fat and lost her looks, nor Catherine Hogarth, the woman he married (and later cruelly wrote out of his life). Neither was it Catherine's younger sister Mary, who died in Dickens's arms and whose ring he wore from then on, nor even Ternan. No, above all these, Dickens loved his adoring public and quickly established an intimate, almost bloglike relationship with his readers through his prefaces, talks and journalism and, of course, by publishing his work in weekly or monthly magazine installments. People came to think of "Boz" -- the pen name he adopted for his earliest sketches -- as virtually a friend of the family.

Over the course of his life, the lionized Dickens met Queen Victoria and two American presidents, counted Washington Irving and Longfellow among his American admirers, regularly socialized with fellow litterateurs Edward Bulwer Lytton, Thomas Carlyle and Wilkie Collins. Hans Christian Andersen once stayed with him for five weeks. "Boz" was even interviewed by two writers whose imaginative intensity rivaled his own: Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky. To the latter, Dickens confessed that there were two people in him, one good, one bad. The Russian shot back, "Only two people?" (I love that.)

Still, it is amazing that a mere decade after he had started writing, the 34-year-old Charles Dickens was world famous and the first of a series of collected works -- the so-called Cheap Edition -- was being published, to be followed in his lifetime by the Library Edition, the People's Edition and the Charles Dickens Edition, among others. When the novelist died of a stroke, halfway through "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," he was only 58, though photographs make him look 20 years older. By all accounts, he simply seems to have burned himself out, like some literary version of the alcoholic Krook, who notoriously self-combusts.

Many modern readers, I think, rather neglect Dickens, disdaining him as melodramatic and sentimental. Instead, we revere Jane Austen for her subtle wit or turn to Henry James for his delicate analyses of human motivation. But Dickens really is our prose Shakespeare. For proof, try almost any of his novels or just watch a DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the BBC dramatizations of "Nicholas Nickleby," "Oliver Twist" or "David Copperfield." When Thackeray, whose "Vanity Fair" was then being published to wild acclaim, first read the scene of young Paul's death in "Dombey and Son," he famously -- and rightly -- cried out: "There's no writing against such power as this -- one has no chance!" For anybody who wants to know more about this dynamo of Victorian letters, Michael Slater's superb biography is the one to read.

Michael Dirda appears each Thursday in Style. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at

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