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The dark side of Dickens

AN Wilson’s new book about Charles Dickens not only offers new insight into the great writer, it whets the appetite for a second read

13 August, 2020 — By Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Charles Dickens around 1867 photographed by Jeremiah Gurney

I BEGAN The Mystery of Charles Dickens not entirely convinced that AN Wilson could make any new contributions to his chosen subject.

Dickens’ life and work has been covered in detail from the early account by his friend, John Forster, to the two most recent, monumental biographies by Claire Tomalin and the Dickens scholar, Michael Slater.

By taking a rather different approach, however, Wilson has been able to offer some intriguing new insights into Dickens.

Published to mark the 150th anniversary of Dickens’ death, Wilson rejects the traditional cradle-to-grave format, choosing instead to focus on significant areas of Dickens’ life, a process Wilson describes as “looking through a series of smaller historical keyholes in order to glimpse the larger picture”.

Starting with Dickens’ last, fatal illness, which began in the house of his mistress, Ellen Ternan, Wilson highlights the first of many startling contradictions in this outwardly respectable icon of the Victorian age.

His choice of the actress Nelly as an introduction is deliberate, since he believes that Dickens’ debt to the theatre is “central to his way of functioning as one of the greatest artistic geniuses of the 19th century”.

Dickens’ wife, Catherine Hogarth

He then goes back to “explore the other mysteries of Charles Dickens; the mystery of his childhood and his past; the mystery of his appalling cruelty to a harmless wife who bore him 10 children; the mystery of his passionate, sincere and burning charity, his fury at injustice; the mystery of his relationship with the public…; and the mystery of his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which he changed direction as an artist and explored the human consciousness in a way that anticipated the developments of psychology and literary modernism”.

Wilson’s investigation is brought to a dramatic conclusion with a final chapter in which he relates his own shocking experience of abuse as a young schoolboy, when the headmaster of his boarding school used regularly to cane him “whilst visibly masturbating, usually inside his trousers, but not always inside”, an event followed by further tortures from the man’s wife and daughter, including making him eat his own vomit.

Far from being merely a sensational end to the book, this allows Wilson not only to remind us of the many abused and unhappy children in Dickens’ work, but also to analyse the healing power and pure magic of his art, without which, Wilson claims, his own spirit “would have gone under” at that time.

A skilful biographer, whose subjects have included such giants as Tolstoy and Milton, and a literary critic with an extensive range of knowledge, particularly of the 19th century and its social background, Wilson is also himself an accomplished novelist: he tackles his subject with verve and imagination, underpinned by serious scholarship.

Yet he wears his learning lightly and his book is a joy to read. The account of Dickens’ death, for instance, combines concrete facts with references to Chaucer and Shakespeare, as well as allusions to Dickens’ own work: “We are now going to his house in Kent, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, in June 1870 to watch Charles Dickens die. Before we reach Gad’s Hill, however, following a road that was trodden by so many before us, fictitious and semi-fictitious, aware of Chaucer’s pilgrims going down to Canterbury, of Falstaff, Bardolph and Poins making their first night-foray as highway-men, and of Mr Pickwick making his more innocent sortie towards Rochester, we are going to return in our mind to a death enacted by Dickens on the stage of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, 13 years before.”

Dickens’ mistress, Ellen Ternan

Wilson is particularly entertaining on the subject of Ellen’s ever-diminishing age after Dickens’ death, when she marries a clergyman 12 years her junior: “As the years rolled by she grew ever younger and more respectable”, like a character from Dickens’ own novels.

By this linking of his many insights concerning Dickens’ life firmly to his work, Wilson strengthens them considerably, as well as bringing his scholarship to life.

His analysis of Dickens’ relationship to his mother, for example, traces his “mother-hate” from the “fluttery, silly figure of Mrs Nickleby” in Nicholas Nickleby to “dark, joyless” Mrs Clennam in Little Dorritt, then links this to Dickens’s abandonment of his wife who, “having borne 10 children, lost her looks and become a fat wretch of misery worn down by his bullying, had taken the place, in his imaginative life, of the mother he could not forgive for her treatment of him in childhood”.

Ellen, Wilson suggests, was the fulfilment of a “nymph-dream, a little girl-woman who could never turn out to be his mutilant-abusive mother in disguise. A Little Dorritt”. He is equally persuasive on Dickens’ relationship with his father, taking the identification of John Dickens with Mr Micawber a stage further than usual to Mr Dorritt, the “Father of the Marshalsea” Prison.

Another fascinating exploration of less familiar territory is Wilson’s investigation of opium dependency in Victorian England, the background to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and its link to Dickens’ own dependency on opium in his last years.

By no means the least of Wilson’s achievements is that he made me want to re-read not just the novels recognised as great, like David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, but works I had ranked lower down the scale, such as Little Dorritt and Edwin Drood, as well as ones I had perhaps hastily dismissed as too “popular” for my taste, notably A Tale of Two Cities.

Having now reread both Little Dorritt and A Tale of Two Cities, I am reminded why, despite his undoubted faults, Dickens is still regarded as one of our greatest writers a century and a half after his death.

  • The Mystery of Charles Dickens. By AN Wilson. Atlantic Books, £17.99


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