In Charles Dickens, MICHAEL SLATER draws upon a lifetime’s study to bring us a fascinating exploration of the author’s personal and emotional life, his high-profile public activities, the relentless travel and his astonishing productivity. Here Michael Slater explains his own approach to the daunting task of writing a new biography of this prodigiously brilliant figure.
I was at first reluctant to accept Yale University Press’s invitation in 2000 to write a new biography of Dickens. I greatly admired Peter Ackroyd’s epic Dickens and Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, a movingly written life of Dickens’s putative mistress Ellen Ternan. Both of these books had appeared in 1990 since which date, it seemed to me, there had been no major new biographical discovery regarding Dickens, no hitherto unknown archive had come to light to justify attempting a new full-scale biography. Then it occurred to me that it would not be long before the appearance of the final volume of the majestic British Academy / Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens (OUP, 12 vols., 1965 – 2002) while my own Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens’s Journalism (J.M.Dent, 4 vols., 1994 – 2000; vol.4 co-edited with John Drew) had just been concluded. The completion of these two projects, with all the Dickens writing they contained which had either never published at all before or had never appeared in a scholarly edition, more than justified, it seemed to me, a new biography. I therefore accepted the commission, despite many misgivings.
I was at once confronted with four problems that any would-be biographer of Dickens has to contend with. The first was indicated by the great Dickens scholar K.J.Fielding who commented that the chief difficulty confronting Dickens biographers was ‘the enormous scope and variety of Dickens’s career: every day of his life was packed with variety and incident, and almost everything he wrote cries out for quotation’ (one reviewer of my biography was nicely responding to this aspect of the story of Dickens’s life, I think, when he said that reading my book was ‘like being sprayed by the ocean’).
The second difficulty was the fact that Dickens himself has so largely set the agenda for any biographer in a number of ways: by suppressing evidence (his regular bonfires of his correspondence), by strictly controlling all information about his private and personal life that got into the public domain, and by leaving behind him the so-called ‘Autobiographical Manuscript’ describing the harrowing time when his father’s financial fecklessness brought the family to near-ruin and the powerful persistence in his mind of bitter memories of that period.
Thirdly, there is the problem of his letters. Many thousands of these wonderful documents survive but they are ‘performative’ rather than intimate or self-revealing. Dickens tended to write his private letters very much as ‘the Inimitable Boz’ or ‘the Sparkler of Albion’ rather than as Charles Dickens. In them he ‘performed’ affection, indignation, exasperation, amusement, fascination, sympathy, and so on, describing and narrating in an entertaining, ‘Dickensian’, way. This makes the letters somewhat unreliable as source material for the biographer.
Finally, there is the difficulty of how to deal with the continuing conundrum of the exact nature of his relations (in all senses) with Ellen Ternan for the last twelve years of his life, separating out what is actually known about this as opposed to what is inferred or assumed or imagined.
In connection with the first of the difficulties mentioned above, a comment of Matthew Arnold’s was very much in mind. He once wrote that one should start out with some idea of the world ‘in order not to be prevailed over by the world’s multitudinousness’. Just so, it seemed to me, one had to start out with some idea of Dickens in order not to be prevailed over by his multitudinouness. This led me to think about what would seem to have been the ideas that guided the three greatest Dickens biographers to date, John Forster, Dickens’s close friend and adviser, whose three-volume Life of Charles Dickens was published 1872 – 74, Edgar Johnson, whose Charles Dickens. His Tragedy and Triumph appeared in 1952, and Peter Ackroyd’s whose Dickens was published in 1990. Forster’s ‘idea’ was the concept of Dickens as a great and good man, dazzlingly gifted, ‘the friend of mankind’ as he called him. For Johnson, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, Dickens was pre-eminently a great critic of society and a champion of the poor whose life-story ‘with its radiances of laughter’ and ‘its conquests of genius’ showed nevertheless a ‘dark and fateful drift towards disillusion even in the midst of universal acclaim’. For Ackroyd, the great novelist of London, Dickens was above all a child of the city, a man both haunted and fascinated by London, both master of it and also dependent on it for his inspiration.
As for me, the ‘idea’ of Dickens that I found governing my attempt on his life was that of him as an immensely gifted, highly professional and prodigiously prolific writer – not only of great novels but also of sketches, short stories, travel books, topical journalism, writings for children, familiar essays, satirical verse, reviews, Christmas pieces, and so on (his wonderful speeches also formed part of my remit). I wanted to explore some of the myriad interconnections between his fictional writings and many of the non-fictional writings that were often appearing contemporaneously with serial instalments of his novels, also to show how much, in all his writing, he drew on events in his own life and/or in the wider world. A number of my chapter-titles reflect this approach: ‘America brought to book’, ‘Writing off a Marriage’, ‘Stories into Scripts’ and so on. I decided to begin the book not with his birth but with the first examples of his writing of which we have any record and to end with a chapter titled ‘Charles Dickens’s Explanation’ focussed on his two remarkable posthumous publications, i.e, his will and the so-called ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ about his time in the blacking-factory published in the first volume of Forster’s Life.
These two publications played a major role in establishing what we would now call Dickens’s ‘legacy’, the image of him as not only a very great writer but also as a great and good man whose ‘hard experiences in boyhood’, as Forster called them, led him to care deeply for, and try to do something about, the terrible plight of the children of the poor in Victorian England. It was not until the 1930s and the coming to light of evidence concerning his relationship with Ellen Ternan that this perception of Dickens began to change and an altogether more complex figure began to emerge in the public consciousness.
Michael Slater is Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, past President of the International Dickens Fellowship and of the Dickens Society of America, and former editor of the journal The Dickensian. He has taught and continues to lecture widely in the USA, across Europe, Australasia and the Far East. His latest book Charles Dickens is out now at www.yalebooks.co.uk.