- Dickens the Inimitable
“Did the famous and loveable and honourable Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was left of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens’s own childhood?”—so wonders the narrator, Wilkie Collins, in Dan Simmons’s novel Drood—“And did Dickens then scheme to scatter the poor victim’s spectacles, rings, stickpins, shirt studs, and pocket watch in the River Thames? And if so, or even if Dickens only dreamed he did these things, what part did a very real phantom named Drood have in the onset of such madness?” The prosaic answers to these questions, of course, are no, no, and none. But prosaic answers, the documentable facts about the life of a man as extraordinary as Charles Dickens, are less exciting than the speculations and ramifications that fill out a spate of new novels constructed around his life.
The life itself is amazing enough. Born in genteel near-poverty; withdrawn from school at an early age and sent to work at a blacking factory pasting labels on bottles of boot polish for ten hours a day—the mindlessness of the work being less trying than the descent into the proletariat—while his parents went to prison for his father’s debt; self-trained in shorthand for parliamentary reporting; then a sketch-writer for the newspapers; he finally achieved success with Sketches by Boz; and then incandescent celebrity with the Pickwick Papers. He built a career unlike any other. Dickens was the most popular author in history up to his time. He invented parts-publication for novels—serials; he inaugurated the author’s reading tour as a respectable activity in England; he was a campaigning journalist who edited a daily newspaper as well as a weekly magazine and two monthly magazines. He was not only a playwright but an actor who, Thackeray said wonderingly, could have gone on the stage and earned £20,000 a year. His energy was enormous; besides his journalism, his fiction, his vast correspondence, his charitable activities on behalf of impoverished authors, prostitutes, and the deserving [End Page 443] poor, he traveled and read constantly, studied and practiced mesmerism, and often walked home from his office, a distance of fifteen miles.
Most of these facts have been known to the public since the appearance of the first biography, written by his longtime friend John Forster, in 1871. Forster revealed the family imprisonment and blacking-warehouse period for the first time; Dickens’s shame had kept these matters from his own family, though David Copperfield incorporates parts of the story. Later biographers unveiled a more deeply hidden part of the history. Dickens separated from his wife in 1857, blaming her unsuitability for the break. Only in 1939 did Gladys Storey (biographer of Dickens’s daughter Kate) report that he had formed an attachment to a young actress, Ellen Ternan, which lasted until the end of his life. His family and friends knew of Ellen, and he provided a house for her and her mother and traveled with her on the continent. Dickens’s fascination with Ellen Ternan helps to explain his desperation and restlessness in the late 1850s and his overcompensating denunciation of his long-suffering wife.
Michael Slater is a cautious biographer, and though he is very informative on the role Ellen played in Dickens’s life, so far as the documents show, he remains noncommittal on whether they were actually lovers—no evidence being available—not to mention the theory or rumor than they had a child who died and was buried in...