Charles Dickens

It is well known that Charles Dickens draws an analogy between the novelist as creator and the Creator of the cosmos: ‘I think the business of art is to lay all [the] ground carefully, but with the care that conceals itself – to show, by a backward light, what everything has been working to – but only to suggest, until the fulfilment comes. These are the ways of Providence, of which ways, all art is but a little imitation.’ However, it is not generally recognised that Dickens supported this analogy with a deep knowledge of the Bible. Instead, the thinking that permeates his works is often seen as a facet of secular humanism. John Ruskin, for example, commented that for Dickens Christmas meant no more than ‘mistletoe and pudding – neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds’.

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‘What is so good about Dickens’s novels?’ It is a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’, in John Mullan’s reckoning. ‘Gosh he is good – though so careless,’ Iris Murdoch wrote to Brigid Brophy in 1962. Many writers before and since have found Dickens not only improvisatory and self-indulgently digressive but also sentimental, melodramatic, and sermonising – a great entertainer rather than a good writer. Mullan undertakes to demonstrate that what appears to be carelessness is as often as not ‘technical boldness and experimental verve’. Composing ‘on the wings of inspiration’, in response to the exigencies of serial publication, Dickens essentially revised as he wrote. Yet, consulting the manuscripts of the novels, Mullan notes how meticulously he adjusted his diction and phrasing. Like Oliver Twist’s companion in crime, the Artful Dodger, who comes alive through his sleights of hand and language, the Artful Dickens is a magician in prose and a talented conjurer: ‘his feats of legerdemain might equally apply to his writing’.

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This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

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‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’ That gunshot of a quotation comes from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. I suspect he means writers are traitors to biology – they have higher allegiances than blood ties. Art is their true spouse; their works are the favoured first-born.

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Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin & Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

by
March 2012, no. 339

This is how Claire Tomalin closes her Dickens biography: ‘He left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens’, followed by a long list of types. I consider Dickens the surrealist, or the sentimentalist, but then I pick Dickens the tireless walker. And I concede, with Tomalin, that regarding his life and work, ‘a great many questions hang in the air, unanswered and mostly unanswerable’.

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In September 1857, after twenty-one years of marriage, Charles Dickens began the eight-month long process of separating himself from his wife, Catherine. At forty-two years of age, Catherine had given birth to ten children and managed Dickens’s large household. Until the mid 1850s she and Dickens seemed to enjoy a happy partnership, yet by 1858 Catherine was exiled from the family home and cut off from all but one of her children.

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Writing a matter of hours after Charles Dickens’s death on 9 June 1870, an obituarist for The Times of London remarked, ‘The story of his life is soon told’. The publication of Dickens’s friend John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens between 1871 and 1874 soon gave the lie to these words, revealing a far more complex and damaged Dickens than the reading public had ever suspected this novelist, journalist, actor, social reformer and bon viveur to be. Since the 1870s thousands of pages have been devoted to scrutinising the life of the self-styled ‘sparkler of Albion’, including G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A critical study (1906), Edgar Johnson’s magisterial Charles Dickens: His tragedy and triumph (1952) and Claire Tomalin’s superbly readable account of Dickens’s infatuation with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman (1991).

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