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Concealing and revealing

In 1837 The Quarterly Review’s anonymous critic — actually, one Abraham Hayward — turned his attention to Charles Dickens, then in the first flaring of his popularity as the author of Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing Michael Slater

Yale, pp.670, 25

In 1837 The Quarterly Review’s anonymous critic — actually, one Abraham Hayward — turned his attention to Charles Dickens, then in the first flaring of his popularity as the author of Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

In 1837 The Quarterly Review’s anonymous critic — actually, one Abraham Hayward — turned his attention to Charles Dickens, then in the first flaring of his popularity as the author of Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. ‘It requires no gift of prophecy to foretell his fate,’ wrote Hayward. ‘He has risen like a rocket, and he will come down like the stick.’

A bit mean, but very funny, of Michael Slater to quote this Victorian prognosticator — a literary ancestor of William Rees-Mogg or Anatole Kaletsky. So far from coming down like a stick has been Dickens’s reputation that one wonders at first what a new biographer has to bring.

Everything has been examined. A single lost pocket-book can give birth to an academic microclimate. Dickens left his diary on a table somewhere in America in 1867 and, as Slater writes, ‘it ended up in the Berg collection of the New York Public Library, where it was subjected to intensive scholarly investigation and interpretation’.

Naturally, then, this book contains a good few hat-tips in the form of ‘famously’ and ‘as has long been recognised’, but Michael Slater’s research has been compendious and his judgments are clear-eyed and his own.

For Dickens himself, writes Slater,

the best way for a writer or any other artist to be remembered was not through biographies, unless they redounded as much to the honour of the art concerned as did Forster’s Goldsmith . . . but through the continued circulation and enjoyment of their work.


Slater’s, as its awkward subtitle promises, is a book squarely preoccupied with redounding to the honour of the art. This is a microscopically attentive account of what Dickens was writing when, and how he went about it. It can be heavy-going in places — but then, it’s a book intended to serve scholars as well as the general reader, so it’s proper that a degree of detail should be there.

It builds up to be a nuanced and interesting account of Dickens as a literary craftsman and a publishing professional. Slater traces Dickens’s deft picking up and putting down of literary forms and features of genre — a ‘theatrical convention’ in Pickwick, Chuzzlewit as a traditional ‘humour character’, the alternation in Oliver Twist of tragic and comic scenes, ‘as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon’, the picaresque here, the gothic there, the likely adoption of a first-person voice under the influence of Jane Eyre, and so on.

He describes the on-the-hoofness of the early work giving way to a more architectural sort of planning — with written ‘mems’ recording the author’s conversations with himself: ‘Uncle Sol to die? No — Run away to look after Walter’, or ‘Carry on the servants as a sort of odd chorus to the story’. He identifies, too, the way Dickens developed his ‘rhetorical style’ of narration — that talky quality of voice that fed, in the end, so easily into his public performances.

Slater’s book also bears out Dickens’s own remarks about the ‘patient and continuous energy’ involved in literary production. It is a story of phenomenally hard work against punishing deadlines. As a journalist, it makes you quail.

In discussing the work, the man (complimented by George Eliot on his ‘courteous neutrality of eyebrow’; described by another contemporary as ‘bristling with self-importance’) is not neglected.

After his death, and thanks in part to his friend John Forster’s biography, the image of Dickens in the public imagination was a compost of Victorian philanthropy and fireside twinkle — a stock favourite uncle character quite as sentimental as any in his fiction.

As Slater makes clear, Dickens could be an ocean-going shit when it suited him — especially to his wife. The cruelty with which he cut Catherine out of his life is startling. He spoke foully about her behind her back, implying that she was a bad mother and a jealous hysteric. ‘If the children loved her, or ever had loved her, this separation would be a far easier thing than it is,’ he wrote to one friend.

When their daughter Katey was married, Catherine ‘was excluded from the occasion’. When dying, Catherine Dickens asked her younger daughter to lodge her letters from him in the British Museum, ‘that the world may know he loved me once’.

Dickens was also — and here, perhaps, the traumatising legacy of his father’s career as a debtor can be seen — extremely prickly and greedy about money. He fell out easily with publishers; George Bentley, the son of one of them, said, ‘Dickens was a very clever man, but he was not an honest man.’ And his first trip to America was more or less overshadowed by his inability to stop lecturing his hosts crossly about copyright.

But there again, Dickens becomes our contemporary. He was as much the victim of piracy and ticket-touting as any modern pop-star. Shameless imitations — The Penny Pickwick by ‘Bos’ and ‘Phis’; A Christmas Ghost Story Reoriginated from the Original by Charles Dickens; Nicholas Nickleby and Poor Smike — filled bookshops and theatres. Touts followed him around America, buying up tickets for his performances for resale, and there were no fewer than 17 unauthorised London stage versions of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth within a month of its publication.

On, undaunted, he forged. You come to wonder what drove him so. Can it really have been that early stint at the blacking factory? Given the way that he returned to it again and again — at the very end of his life, he chose ‘Warren’s Blacking, 30, Strand!’as his contribution to a Christmas parlour game — it really does seem that way. His was a long game of conceal and reveal.

‘Every writer of fiction,’ Dickens wrote, ‘though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.’ In Dickens’s productively conjoined obsessions — with fiction and the theatre — the common feature was that they made him the centre of attention, while always allowing him to be someone else.

Penetrating, if a little sad, are the commentators Slater quotes who thought Dickens was ‘a spectacular case of arrested development’ — a writer whose natural comic gifts were constrained by his own determination to write in a pathetic mode; whose achievement was rooted in, but limited by, self-pity.

Mind you, we should all be so limited. We should all come down like such a stick.


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