Dickens in Love: How the Author's Romantic Life Affected His Novels

Two new books about the British writer make different conclusions about his relationships with women


Harvard University Press, Penguin Press

Which would you prefer to read: the story of a novelist's life, or the story of how he became a novelist? This is the autumn of Charles Dickens biographies, and the choice is yours.

Ahead of February's bicentennial celebration of Dickens's birth, both Oxford fellow Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, literature scholar, and prizewinning biographer Claire Tomalin, whose previous subjects have included Thomas Hardy, are offering up their takes on the great writer.

Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens is the latest how-an-author-got-his-spots story—think Shakespeare in Love and Becoming Jane—which is not to say it is remotely frivolous or unoriginal work. The prologue opens with a description of a 1855 computer-accessorized but Reform Bill-free London that never existed, a meta-nod to Douglas-Fairhurst's thesis: that Charles Dickens was a man alternately fascinated and haunted by counterfactuals. It is not the only artistic wink in the book, which includes such chapter titles as "Novelist Writer" and "Is She His Wife?", the title of an 1837 Dickens play and simultaneously a revealing heading for the chapter in which Douglas-Fairhurst discusses Dickens's much-debated relationship with his wife's sister Mary, who died tragically young.

Douglas-Fairhurst's offering is also unmistakably the work of an academic—a literature specialist. Cutting the story off when Dickens is 26, it does not read like a biography. The reader is immersed alternately in Dickens's writing and the world of nineteenth-century London, which Douglas-Fairhurst discusses at length to contextualize his dives into the writer's psyche. For every turn in the young Dickens's life, Fairhurst offers an example—or four—of how the incident worked its way into the man's later novels. We learn why Dickens wrote the way he did and why it resonated so much with readers of the time. And though this is closely tied to social change in the industrial age, Douglas-Fairhurst neatly sidesteps tired, modern-day rants about class tension, diving right to the human element of the matter. For example, speaking of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens's first novel:

As the effects of the 1832 Reform Bill continued to make themselves felt, Dickens's new double-act of Samuel and Samivel struck a chord not because it was nostalgic for a time when the working classes knew their place, or because it looked forward to such relationships being established on an equal footing, but because it evoked fears of social unpredictability (a servant fully abreast of current affairs; an employer as plump and innocent as a baby), and then calmed them through the democracy of laughter.

On the other end of the writer-reader relationship, Douglas-Fairhurst goes deep into childhood experiences like getting lost in London or having to work in a blacking warehouse to explain Dickens's literary obsessions. "The figure of the child who is lost and found again haunted Dickens like a restless ghost," Douglas-Fairhurst explains.

"Keep the child in view," he reminded himself when composing the final stages of The Old Curiosity Shop; and ... what had been a local warning not to lose track of Little Nell in the dense weave of his plot gradually emerged as a more general template for his fiction. Oliver Twist, Smike, Jo—the pages of Dickens's novels are crowded with children who wander away from their old lives and need to be rescued from danger ... Whenever he exorcised this ghost it reappeared in ever stranger forms ... Dickens was equally haunted by the irrevocable consequences that one wrong turning in life might have ... Once we have chosen one path over another, or over many others, he admits, we can never retrace our steps and recover the opportunities we have lost. "Pause you," Pip urges the reader in Great Expectations, "and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

The close textual analysis technique will be familiar and, in some cases, irritating, to plenty of college English students. Douglas-Fairhurst certainly pushes the bounds of the plausible. For example, he deduces Dickens's mixed feelings about progress in a sentence in Dombey and Son entirely from word rhythms and the notion of death being democratic. Or take this seemingly cannabis-laced statement: "Dickens's novels do not merely describe homes; in some ways, they are homes." Inhale.

But Douglas-Fairhurst's immersive approach to Dickens has one striking effect: scattering Dickensian plot notes all over the place like gumdrops, he makes you want to read Dickens's original text. For those who never found Dickens the most compelling of authors, even of nineteenth-century authors (yours truly included) Douglas-Fairhurst provides plenty of reasons to take a second look. Nowhere is this more true than in his account of Dickens's devastation at sister-in-law and hypothetical soulmate Mary Hogarth's death. This is also the point at which Douglas-Fairhurst's portrait diverges most starkly from Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life.

Tomalin is not a literature scholar—she is a biographer. And she is very good at biography. The story of Dickens's life in her book is vastly easier to follow, and those put off by Douglas-Fairhurst's long descriptions of London clerk culture will be relieved at Tomalin's focus. Because she is also focusing on Dickens's life—his whole life—she includes plenty of intriguing and illuminating stories of which Douglas-Fairhurst, by nature of his project, makes no mention. We learn what kind of wine Dickens drinks, as well as his favorite fruit (spoiler: raspberries). We learn of his relationship with his mother, and the actual details of his father's imprisonment as a debtor, the psychological impact of which Douglas-Fairhurst explores at length. Tomalin does not ignore the text—she refers to plot elements and lines from Dickens's novels and letters frequently—but neither does she explore it in such obsessive depth. When she does dive in, she sometimes draws different conclusions. Looking at one of Dickens's lines about his childhood, she writes, "What is most remarkable is the strength of the image he had of himself, his belief in his own capacities and potential, justified by everything that came after, but uncertain then." This is nearly the exact opposite of Douglas-Fairhurst's thesis, which, aside from pushing back against retrospective determinism—"the inevitable compromises involved in any attempt to give life's uncertainties the biographer's cohering touch"—argues that no man so literarily obsessed with alternative outcomes could have been as self-assured as Dickens is commonly believed to have been.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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