Charles Dickens Turns 200: How He Captured the Highs and Lows of His Time

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 7 2012 11:30 AM

Read Dickens Now!

On his 200th birthday, two biographies remind us of his vast social imagination.

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Don’t misread the politics either. It’s true that Dickens concludes his tales with warm toes around the cozy hearths. A change of heart—usually kindled by a pure young woman—stands in place of a change in society. But the middles of the stories count as much as the reassuring close: There you find the withering attack on power small and large, the unmasking of economic fraud and political evasion. Several years ago Jonathan Rose looked at the diaries and letters of British working men (in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes) to find out what they read and what they actually made of it—not what later interpreters assumed they must have. Repeatedly, Dickens appears as an inspiration to social struggle, as anything but a domestic quietist.

Repeatedly, Dickens is also an inspiration to biographers. As both Claire Tomalin (Charles Dickens: A Life) and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Becoming Dickens) have to admit, the major episodes of the life have been told again and again. These new books share a mannerism of not noticing precursors, but never mind, here’s a list of just their more recent rivals: Michael Slater (2009), Peter Ackroyd (1990), Edgar Johnson (1977), Fred Kaplan (1988).

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The new arrivals aren’t daunted—and can’t help intersecting countless ways, even for instance in their shared catch of the word flare in Dickens’ letters, used as a sign of life’s sudden heightening (as in “[I] shall ‘flare’ briefly in the Chronicle tomorrow”). They take their turns with the by now well-known depths as well as heights: the humiliating work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, when 12-year-old Charles wanted only to return to school and read “as if for life”; the sudden fame; the obsession with his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died at 17; the infatuation with the young actress Ellen Ternan and the public break with his wife.

But they also make very different decisions. Tomalin is a distinguished professional biographer who has already produced some big lives, including Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas Hardy. Expert, lucid, and nonpartisan, she reads with no special lens; she carries no ax. Of all the biographies out there, hers is the most efficient, balanced, and usable we have. But to keep the life-pace quick, she makes disappointingly brisk work of the work. The novels appear as events to chronicle like a marriage or a holiday. She satisfies herself, but not us, with terse summaries that often become little more than admiring or deploring sounds about this character or that.

Douglas-Fairhurst has taken the opposite tack, and written the more interesting book. Instead of trying to cast the whole life in crisp relief, he takes a piece—from the beginning to Pickwick—and turns it slowly in the light. His idea is that if we draw on all we’ve come to know about Dickens, we might capture the density of self-in-society, especially this blooming self in this bristling society. So we often move a day or an hour at a time in Becoming Dickens, watching the twitchy uncertain discovery of a vocation and then the thrill when this writer realizes he’s a genius.

Douglas-Fairhurst has a clever idea that also happens to work: As the young Dickens moves through London, the biography collects fictional episodes that correspond to the life-stage. So when Dickens is thrown to the blacking factory, Becoming Dickens gathers the tales of lost and abandoned children that will unspool through the career. When he’s an apprentice in a law office (and a career as a writer is still notional), we meet the tribe of clerks who stumble through the novels’ pages. It could have felt like clunky machinery, but the approach deftly shows how much of the future writer lives within the present journalist and the would-be actor. Douglas-Fairhurst lingers over phrases that echo back from the end of the career to the beginnings. He sees life and work as one work; and by slowing everything down, he comes closer than anyone before to cracking the mystery of the erupting young Dickens: the mix of frantic self-making and joyous cordiality. In a clinching passage, he notes the abiding attempt “to show how many private worlds are contained in the public world—his writing is an unflagging celebration of the unique, the freakish, the stubbornly eccentric—while also reminding us of what we have in common.”

So many of Dickens’ fictions start by dividing the world in two, with separate zones of goodness and badness. Then the engine of generosity starts to whirr. Villains often soften; hypocrites relent; misers melt. The more Dickens dwells on any character, the more likely it is to turn toward the light. The deepest urge in his imagination was to invite everyone to the feast of life (“you come too, Mr. Scrooge”), which is why the books conjure an immensity of food: so that there will always be more than enough of everything for everyone, especially enough laughter and ham and happy tears.

At the end of the abundance that is Little Dorrit (1857), the newlywed protagonists (Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit) descend the steps of the church: “They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.” This is his 200th birthday gift to us, an invitation to life’s everlasting mixture, where two can truly wed only by also marrying the uproarious many.

Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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