From The Sunday Times

September 27, 2009


Charles Dickens by Michael Slater

Sunday Times review by John Carey

Reading a life of Dickens is like cheering a winning team. You feel buoyed up by the sheer extravagance of his success. By the time he was 30 he was the most famous writer in the world. When he went to America in 1842 he was fêted by joyous crowds, as (he exulted) “no king or emperor upon the earth” had been before. It was a spectacular turnaround, for his early life had touched a depth so dreadful that he never revealed it, even to his wife and children. In 1824, two days after his 12th birthday, his chronically incompetent parents had sent him to work in a blacking factory, housed in a rat-infested tenement overlooking the Thames, where his job was to stick labels on pots of boot polish for 10 hours a day. At about the same time, his father was interned in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. It used to be thought that Dickens’s ordeal in Warren’s Blacking lasted for only a few weeks, but Michael Slater notes that recent research suggests he was there for 13 or 14 months, an eternity for a 12-year-old. He had been a bright, precocious child, and done well at school. Now, it seemed, he had been forgotten by everyone, and was destined to drag out his days as a “little laboring hind”.


He built his art around this trauma. The vulnerable child in a threatening place (Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Little Dorrit) became a staple ingredient of his fiction, and they were all versions of himself. The sinister villain who entraps Oliver was named after his (actually friendly and helpful) workmate in the blacking factory, Bob Fagin. Having to fend for himself in the turmoil of London’s streets provided him with his education as a novelist. It was here that he developed what the actor William Macready called his “clutching eye” for people’s oddities and mannerisms, as well as his ability to mimic the voices of street life — loafers, fruit-sellers, cheap-jacks. He made his name writing journalistic snatches of London life, Sketches by Boz. The streets, he said, were his “magic lantern”, and he could not work without them. Trying to start Dombey and Son in Lausanne in 1846 he complained to his friend John Forster that, away from London’s crowds, his creativity stagnated.

The blacking-factory nightmare determined not just the kind of fiction he would write, but his reason for writing. He wanted to be loved by his readers, to make them laugh and cry and to enter their hearts, and this was because those who should have loved him as a child had, he felt, cast him out. The pain of being unloved was sharpened during adolescence by Maria Beadnell, a banker’s daughter, way beyond his income level, who flirted with him and threw him over. “Whatever of fancy, romance, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me,” he later told her, “I have never separated and never shall separate from the hardhearted little woman — you.” He married his wife Catherine on the rebound and (ominously for the future) his letters suggest that he was never really in love with her. His true love affair was always to be with his public, and its consummation were his tours of Britain and America, giving readings from the novels to rapturous audiences.


There have been many lives of Dickens, so what makes Slater’s stand out? First, he has a matchless knowledge of all things Dickensian, and, second, having edited four superbly informative volumes of Dickens’s journalism, he is ideally equipped to enrich his biography by dipping into the ocean of Dickens’s writings aside from the novels — the travelogues, short stories, essays, speeches, polemical tirades and the 15,000 letters in the magnificent Pilgrim

edition, which took a team of scholars 37 years to complete. Aspects of Dickens that might not be guessed from the fiction show up in these other writings, his boundless vitality, for example, his ruthlessness in business matters, his brilliance as a foreign correspondent, whether describing the crumbling grandeurs of Venice or noticing, in Rome, the electric telegraph wires piercing “like a sunbeam through the cruel old heart of the coliseum”.


Abroad, he was able to glut his fascination with murder and the macabre in ways not readily available in Britain. Whenever he was in Paris he found himself “dragged by an invisible force” into the morgue, where bodies fished from the Seine were put on show. He even went there on Christmas day to see the corpse of an old grey-haired man with water dripping off the corner of his mouth, making him look “sly”. In Rome he went to see a man guillotined and inspected the body with interest afterwards, noting “the apparent annihilation of the neck”. The head was “taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw”, yet the body “looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder”.


Slater does not mention these details, perhaps thinking them unseemly, which of course they are. But unseemliness is vital to Dickens’s power, especially when roused. Slater quotes his description of diners at a city banquet — “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle”. How good it would be, you feel, to read Dickens on bankers’ bonuses. But current political commentary is mealy-mouthed by comparison. Who would dare, nowadays, to describe children at a school for the poor as “low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked and unutterably ignorant”?


Dickens depicts poverty’s effects honestly because he wants to convince his readers that poverty must be eliminated. Slater’s emphasis on the life beyond the novels brings out how tirelessly he flung his weight behind good causes. He edited a weekly magazine, supervising every issue and writing scores of articles himself; he ran a home for destitute women, funded by a wealthy heiress; he organized “amateur” dramatics (actually of a rigorously professional standard) for various charities; he agitated to make it illegal for women and children to work underground in mines; he campaigned for Great Ormond Street hospital for children; he accompanied the police detective branch on night-time forays into thieves’ dens. And still he had energy left over to “walk my 15 miles a day constantly at a great pace”, without which, he said, “I should just explode”.


His dynamism did not make him easy to live with. Almost never ill himself, he disapproved of illness in others. When Catherine was expecting their fifth child in 1844, he grumbled that she was nervous and dull: “I am sure she might rally, if she would.” The young actress Ellen Ternan was clearly preferable in many respects, but Slater scrupulously insists that there is no evidence she became Dickens’s mistress (let alone, as some believe, bore him a son). In the fracas that surrounded his marriage break-up, Dickens defiantly insisted that she was as pure as his own daughters, which may be true. A platonic guardianship might have appealed to the chivalric strain in his nature, and Slater points out that, from the time he met Ellen, a man passionately in love with a woman he cannot have is at the heart of his fiction — A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. It is an intriguing idea, and typical of the watchfulness with which this fine biography aligns life and works.


Charles Dickens by Michael Slater


Yale £25 pp696