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Authors: Jane Smiley

Charles Dickens

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Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published in 2002 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.


Copyright © Jane Smiley, 2002
All rights reserved

Smiley, Jane.
Charles Dickens / Jane Smiley.
p. cm.—(Penguin lives series)
“A Penguin life.”
“A Lipper/Viking book.”
ISBN 978-1-1012-1543-2

1. Dickens, Charles, 1812–1870. 2. Novelists, English—
19th century—Biography. I. Title. II. Series.
PR4581.S616 2002
[B] 2001045607

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Printed in the United States of America

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of Charles Dickens is possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history. Not only did he write fifteen novels, ten of which were eight hundred or more pages long, he also wrote numerous stories, articles, travel pieces, essays, letters, editorial notes, and plays. For his entire literary life, he was observed by relatives, friends, servants, acquaintances, fellow authors, and strangers, who wrote about him in reviews, articles, diaries, letters, biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies. He was relentlessly observed by himself, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes unsympathetically. He was, in short, an object of fascination, a true celebrity (maybe the first true celebrity in the modern sense), a social phenomenon, a figure unique among his contemporaries and yet representative of them, as they themselves understood. Among English writers, Dickens's only peer, in terms of general fame, worldwide literary stature, and essential Englishness, is William Shakespeare, and the two authors are alike in several ways. Both peopled the imaginative landscape in a manner almost superhuman, pouring forth characters of such number, variety, and vividness that it seems impossible that they could be the products of a single mind. Both depicted English life when English life was at its most interesting and vital, and both seemed to sparkle at the
center of that life, in London, though both were also adept at evoking English pastoral scenes. They share another quality, too, and that is that both remain essentially mysterious, Shakespeare in part because so little is known of him outside of his plays, and Dickens in part because everything that is known of him makes him all the more difficult to comprehend.

Biographies of Dickens, long and short, abound. A lifelong friend of his, John Forster, published the first authoritative one shortly after Dickens died. The most recent, by Peter Ackroyd, published in 1990, is more than a thousand pages long. It is, therefore, not the intention of this volume to lay out chronologically everything that we have come to know of Charles Dickens's life as a result of some 130 years of industrious digging on the part of aficionados and scholars from all parts of the world (though admittedly mostly from England). The Charles Dickens we know is decidedly different from the man his contemporaries knew. For one thing, Dickens did not reveal the details of his painful childhood even to his children, and he did not come to terms with it himself until he chose to revisit his early experiences while writing
David Copperfield.
He kept other secrets as well. Rather than telling his story chronologically, I will attempt to evoke Dickens as he might have seemed to his contemporary audience, to friends and relatives, to intimate acquaintances, to himself, filling in the background only as he became willing to address it in his work. My purpose here is to avoid the dreary illusion of superiority that comes when critics and biographers purport to know a subject better than (or more truthfully than or more insightfully than) the subject knew himself. Writers and
artists are often portrayed as carriers of their own works, rather like carriers of disease, who communicate them to the world at large unconsciously, giving themselves away without design or intention. My own experience as a writer and a reader is quite different. Writing is an act of artistic and moral agency, where choices are made that the author understands, full of implications and revelations that the author also understands. One thing that we know about Dickens from his editorial work is that he had an exceptionally sophisticated understanding of how writing works—of what is appealing and why, of the balance between the artistic and the commercial, of how to create effects, and of the competing claims of morality, aesthetics, and truth in the composition and social function of serious fiction, as well as the other forms of literature that Dickens turned his attention to. We also know that Dickens was quite well aware of the impression he made upon those around him and was adept at manipulating it. Acting was his great avocation from first to last, and he worked as hard at the presentation of his works, and of himself, as he did at his writing and editing.

In addition, I will offer interpretations of almost all of Dickens's major works. One of the most interesting things about Charles Dickens is the way in which his style and his interest in social themes remained remarkably consistent throughout his career, while his vision shifted and evolved. His Christmas books, for example, offer a different philosophical solution to the dilemmas presented by capitalism than do his great novels of the 1850s,
Bleak House
Little Dorrit
. Dickens was intently and systematically engaged with the social and economic questions of his time. He
passionately sought solutions for such practical issues as public sanitation and relief of want and ignorance; he also pondered death, evil, cruelty, innocence, comfort, pleasure, happiness, and redemption. And he was an endlessly witty man, for whom words were a permanent delight. His novels shaped his life as much as his life shaped his novels, and just as his novels were in part commentary on his life, so his actions, in part, grew out of the way that writing novels gave his feelings and thoughts specific being. To a novelist, his work is not his product but his experience. Over time, his readers are further and further removed from the details of his life, but while they are reading his books, they are in his presence, experiencing his process of thought and imagination as it precipitates inchoate idea to particular word. To me, this is the miracle of literature, that minds can communicate, can meditate upon the same images, across decades, centuries, and miles. Charles Dickens was so thoroughly a novelist that we can hardly know him at all without following him into every novel.

Let us, then, not approach the man himself with a hostile desire to catch him out in self-contradictions and failures of self-knowledge, but rather with a friendly desire to get to know him and to achieve what Victorians might have termed “a growing intimacy.”


was a public man and a famous man, and he assumed both of these slightly different roles in his early twenties. His first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published in the
Monthly Magazine
in December 1833. Dickens, born on February 7, 1812, was only twenty-one, but because of his work as a parliamentary reporter (he had taught himself shorthand and was able to take down speeches word for word), he was already familiar with seeing his name in print. Nevertheless, he related later that “I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there.” Further sketches published in monthly and weekly magazines over the following months attracted considerable notice, and when
Sketches by Boz
appeared in volume form in February and December 1836, they were well reviewed. What everyone, including Dickens himself, considered especially remarkable was their breadth of scope, and in particular the variety of lower-class characters and scenes depicted, perhaps a first in English literature. One reviewer called them “a perfect picture of the morals, manners, and habits of a great portion of English Society.”

At only twenty-four, Dickens found himself in an
advantageous authorial position—he was invited to contribute the text for a series of sporting engravings to be published by the firm of Chapman and Hall. They offered Dickens £14 per month (it is impossible to know exactly what this would be equivalent to in modern dollars, but it is useful to multiply any Dickensian sum by 35, which would make his fee about $500). The artist, Robert Seymour, was successful and famous, and it was he who was supposed to take the lead in conceiving and guiding the collaboration. The arrangement lasted two months, until Seymour committed suicide. In even this short a time, though, Dickens was able to assert his own resolve that he should direct the project, and by the time another artist, Hablot Browne, was hired, Dickens had gotten himself a raise, increased the proportion of the writing to the illustrations, and turned the whole endeavor into
The Pickwick Papers,
which was destined to become a publishing phenomenon.

The Pickwick Papers
was published between March 1836 and November 1837. From that time to the end of his life, Charles Dickens was a figure of whom everyone had something to say, so it is appropriate to take a look at him upon his first real entrance into the condition of celebrity. First and foremost, friends and acquaintances noted his lively presence, his charm, his good looks, and his colorful style of dress. Though rather short, and even slight, Dickens was extremely straight in his bearing, and his friend and future biographer John Forster recalled “the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook. . . . Light and motion flashed from every part of it.” Forster asserted that humor, “habitual, unbounded, and resistless,” was his most
essential characteristic, but everyone he knew expressed astonishment at Dickens's level of activity, whether the object of that activity was work, games, exercise, amateur acting and play production, charitable projects, or anything else. He was good company and he loved all sociable amusements. He later commented that at this time of his life he was going out to the theater sometimes every night of the week—not only to see the more respectable offerings at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, but to any and all sorts of shows, spectacles, pageants, and performances. Himself adept at declaiming, singing, and performing, he was invited everywhere and participated fully in all forms of the social life of the time—parties and “at homes,” nights on the town with groups of male friends, dinners, jaunts, impromptu adventures. Already, though, observers were finding something uncanny about his manner. As astute as he was charming, he often gave people the sense that they were being “scanned” from top to bottom. Extant portraits and photographs certainly fail to reveal the Dickens that his contemporaries knew, especially in the early years, since for various technical reasons subjects were never pictured or photographed smiling. It is especially important, therefore, to be mindful that what the twenty-first century is able to
of Dickens is the merest brittle shell of how he appeared to those around him.

The Pickwick Papers
sold fewer than 500 copies of the first monthly number. The fourth number sold 4,000, the eleventh 14,000, and the last numbers around 40,000. Once published in volume form, it sold well for the rest of Dickens's life and after. By 1878, it had sold 1.6 million copies in various editions.

The success of his literary efforts enabled Dickens to progress in his private life, and on the second of April 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of George Hogarth, the editor of the newly established
Evening Chronicle,
a journal to which Dickens contributed twenty pieces. The Hogarths were Scottish, and before becoming a journalist George had been a lawyer in Edinburgh and the legal adviser and intimate friend of Walter Scott, an author Dickens very much admired. Catherine was the eldest of nine children, and the Hogarths were a lively, clever family. George himself was an accomplished musician and served as music critic of another newspaper that Dickens had written for, the
Morning Chronicle

The twenty-four-year-old Dickens embraced the Hogarth family and, in turn, was embraced by them. He was impressed with their cultural connections, their liveliness, and their talents, especially the musical ones, which Dickens had a particular affinity for, being himself a performer and ready singer of popular songs, and he treated not only George but also Mrs. Hogarth with great affection. It may have seemed to him that he had found the one family that perfectly reflected his own aspirations to a hardworking prominence that was both artistic and bourgeois. An earlier suit had failed. His beloved, a young woman named Maria Beadnell, daughter of a banker, whom he had courted obsessively for four years, had finally rejected him (or her connections had broken off the relationship—the circumstances remain unclear) in May 1833.

Catherine Hogarth was a placid and gentle young woman of twenty quite unlike Maria Beadnell. Dickens's letters to her show that he felt affectionate toward Catherine, though not especially passionate, and that he took directing and molding
her as seriously as he took pleasing and courting her—he was moving eagerly into the accepted Victorian role of paterfamilias. He also grew quite fond of, and intimate with, Catherine's younger sister Mary, who moved in with the young couple. His marriage and his relationship with the Hogarths, then, nicely expressed who he thought himself to be at the time, as well as his ideal of family life—a sort of cozy, busy, fecund, sociable, and comfortable household where people with imagination, energy, and considerable social mobility could gather and find both enjoyment and stimulation. The family formed by Charles, Catherine, and Mary seems to have suited all of them, and for Dickens it was as close as he ever came to domestic happiness. The gentle and affectionate, but somewhat languid Catherine satisfied the role of wife and mother, while the quicker Mary offered a more virginal and intellectual form of female companionship.

By the age of twenty-four, Dickens had already been working for nine years. He had applied himself to every task with vigor, and through a mixture of indefatigable endeavor, talent, imagination, charm, and focus, he had succeeded at nearly everything he tried. Only his great passion for acting had been stymied: on the day of his audition as a professional actor, he had fallen ill with a cold. Publication, of course, and the huge success of
fixed his professional course, but he could never be said to have “failed” at acting—he came back to it over and over, in amateur theatricals and other performances, and always received excellent reviews. In addition, in this same period, he became friends with William Charles Macready, one of the greatest actors of the Victorian period, a man who did much to rehabilitate the plays of William
Shakespeare from the corrupted versions common in the eighteenth century.

Foremost among Dickens's friends was John Forster, another literary bon vivant and another ambitious and self-made man. Dickens and Forster were close associates in every way for the rest of Dickens's life, in personal, artistic, and public affairs. Forster handled many of Dickens's business matters, was his artistic and editorial adviser on many projects, and at last wrote the first and in some ways the most exhaustive (though discreet) Dickens biography. There were plenty of other friends, mostly artists, authors, and other men of the artistic/public sort.

Dickens's own family was like an unsuccessful version of the Hogarth family. John Dickens was a skilled journalist, also of a convivial temperament, and considered to be a man of some charm. Of Elizabeth Dickens, too, it was said that she was vivacious and winning. But the elder Dickenses had led a life of such improvidence, marked by so many changes in circumstances, that Charles Dickens's attitude toward them, both together and individually, was at the very least extremely complex and in some ways a contrast to his general charitableness. In the early years of his marriage and professional success, he was tormented by the fecklessness as well as the importunities of his parents and his brothers. With success and marriage, he had separated himself from the life he had led with them (a life that he hardly ever spoke of), but he could not as easily separate himself from his relations themselves. He attempted to find them work, to find them places to live (sometimes at quite a distance), to keep them at arm's length, but he repeatedly found himself bailing them out of
financial difficulties. This was especially true of his father, and Dickens often spoke of his parents with exasperation in letters to friends. Even so, for fifteen months, it seemed as though Charles and Catherine Dickens were especially favored in every way—Dickens was busy, rich, and popular. He knew at once and without being told how interconnected fame, money, influence, and artistic independence were, and he asserted himself almost immediately to sustain all four of them through hard work, aggressive business dealings, and self-promotion. And, of course, the exercise of genius.

Catherine Dickens gave birth to Charles junior on January 2, 1837, and in April the couple moved out of their rooms into a house. Then, on May 7, after an illness of only a few days, seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth died suddenly. She died in Dickens's arms, and he was so undone by the loss that he had to put off completing the installment of
The Pickwick Papers
that he was working on. He wore one of her rings on his finger for the rest of his life and kept a lock of her hair and her clothes. When, five years later, one of her brothers died and was buried with her, Dickens wrote that “the thought of being excluded from her dust” was like “losing her a second time.” Over the course of the next thirty years, he thought of her constantly and did not think that the influence of her spirit over him could be exaggerated. She is often said to have inspired several of Dickens's female characters of a certain type, of which Agnes, in
David Copperfield,
is an example—virtuous, compliant, and virginal, voiceless in a sense, and almost always too good for this world. Catherine could never take her place or fill, by herself, the two roles that Dickens needed filled by the women in his life.

• • •

The Pickwick Papers
is not a book that holds much appeal for the modern reader. Episodic sporting adventures, however, were quite popular at the time, and a large part of their appeal was in the accompanying illustrations. The “novel” has the looseness and digressiveness of many eighteenth-century works like
Tom Jones
Tristram Shandy,
both of which Dickens admired. Dickens had not at that point developed his particular social vision, especially the darker, angrier parts of it, and his style, though already distinct, does not have the incandescent and concentrated ironic power that he achieved in later works. What he does have, full grown, and what readers noticed almost at once, is that facility in drawing characters that are not only entertaining but unique. An early example is Alfred Jingle, who joins Pickwick's party of friends and at first seems benign enough. His characteristic mode of expression is a sort of word-association utterance of disjointed cant phrases: “Splendid—capital. Kent, sir—everybody knows Kent—apples, cherries, hops, and women. Glass of wine, sir?” And a few moments later: “ ‘Beg your pardon, sir,' said the stranger, ‘bottle stands—pass it round—way of the sun—through the button-hole—no heeltaps.' ” The Pickwickians are deceived by Jingle's bonhomie and apparent savoir faire, until he attempts to elope with the sister of their host. Only when he is being bought off by the man's lawyer does he speak in coherent sentences. When the lawyer suggests that £50 is a “good round sum—a man like you could treble it in no time—great deal to be done with fifty pounds, my dear sir,” Jingle has no trouble responding “coolly,” “More to be done with a hundred and fifty.” Jingle's mode of
expression is funny in itself, partly because it is mechanical and repetitive in rhythm and partly because the associated phrases are unexpected, and the shift to a more normal speech pattern reveals and underscores Jingle's duplicity. This is the absolute heart of Charles Dickens's idiosyncratic genius: what Jingle communicates to the reader, and what Dickens communicates through him, accumulates meanings and layers with every piece of dialogue and is simultaneously interesting and economical. And Jingle's style stands in contrast with the narrator's and the Pickwickians' more discursive manner, adding yet another layer.

BOOK: Charles Dickens
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