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.

Charles Dickens, 1843
Charles Dickens, 1843.

Charles Dickens, the clear-eyed chronicler of abundance and want, turns 200 years old today. His buoyant imagination was matched by bitter realism, making him the perfect choice for readers who like their escapism in a minor key. Dickens often, but not always, allowed light and warmth to win out over the cold and dark. Last November, Michael Levenson wrestled with the novelist’s legacy in a review of two new Dickens biographies. The original piece is reprinted below.

Dickens! Should’st be living at this hour and should’st be writing for Slate and publishing fiction online. The world needs vivid laughter, wider vision. Even just to recall the names of characters—Smike, Scrooge, Guppy, Copperfield, Nell—is to wake to lost possibilities of what novels can reach and do. All our talk of the middle class these days is fine, but Dickens knew the higher and the lower, the much lower: the mudlark, the wasting orphan, the prison child, the crossing sweeper, the dun, the dustman, the shabby clerk, the street philosopher. He knew the textures of their everyday lives, their talk, their walk, and the urban abyss yawning near.

He turns 200 in February (party at my house, everyone invited), which is one good explanation for two new biographies appearing just in time. But it will be good for all of us to stage his cell-break from “Classics” and to let him be where he belongs, always on the reading shelf marked “The Way We Live Now.” Think back to the three-and-a-half decades of the career, from the spectacular appearance of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, which brought world fame to a 24-year-old, to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished when a stroke blew through his frantic brain in 1870.

During those years, Britain grew more self-regarding and other-dominating, complacent, and imperial. The Podsnap of Our Mutual Friend is a skewering caricature of puffed-up national pride, British exceptionalism. Here he lords it over a “foreign” guest at a dinner party.

“We Englishman are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favored as This Country.”

“And ozer countries?—“ the foreign gentleman was beginning, when Mr. Podsnap put him right again.

"We do not say Ozer; we say Other; the letters are ‘T’ and ‘H;’ You say Tay and Aish, You Know; (still with clemency), The sound is ‘th’ – ‘th’!”

“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman. “They do how?”

“They do, Sir,” returned Mr. Podsnap, gravely shaking his head; “they do—I am sorry to be obliged to say it—as they do.”

Dismissing his gnat of a guest, “with his favorite right-arm flourish, he put the rest of Europe and the whole of Asia, Africa, and America nowhere.” Podsnappery, Dickens knows, is loathsome all on its own, but then it’s even worse in its blighting of other lives. The swarming London poor give the haunting example. But everywhere there is the waste of gift and the decay of promise. For the mid-Victorians, government intervention was unthinkable, the market was king, only private philanthropy was tolerated, “in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859). So he has caught up to us, or we have reverted to him. Either way, it’s time to return to Dickens if you’ve been away.

Full disclosure: I love these novels the way you're supposed to love only a parent, a partner, a child. I have no patience for the disenchanted readers you can meet along the road: the distracted ones who say they get bored (“so read while you’re awake!”), or the academic ones who see Dickens as complicit with power, in bed with the bourgeoisie (“and what are you?!”).

He was flawed; he was mixed. Growing cold and then colder to his wife, he humiliated her in a cramped statement of 1857, published in the Times and his own journal, Household Words. Casual with the prospects of most of his 10 children, he treated them as he would never want a child in his fiction to be treated. The novels sometimes meet the limits of their sympathy and falter into stereotype. But the flaws are a small price for the immensity. Here is earth’s plenty. The reach of feeling to the least of us (poor Tim), the savage caricature of cold wealth or local cruelty, the accord with booming bristling London, the hilarity, the food, the sentimentality that brings true (as well as false) emotion. And then there’s the thrill of the words, the surprise in sentences that seem to leap into empty space, tumbling through tones and moods, twisting backward over clicking heels of metaphor, only to land where no one, maybe not even Dickens, could have guessed.

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).

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.