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

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

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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.

Douglas-Fairhurst's portrait thus is, ultimately, probably the more sympathetic. Though he doesn't ignore Dickens's limitations when it came to women, compared to Tomalin, he shies away. Tomalin frankly discusses Dickens's marriage to Catherine Hogarth as a practical matter of sex without disease risk, notes his neat and limited conceptions and ideals for the women in his life. Dickens had a more significant relationship, Tomalin argues, with his male friend, the literary critic John Forster, than with any woman in his life—and it shows in his writing. She points out that the prostitute character of Nancy in Oliver Twist, despite Dickens's experience seeing such women in London's streets, is a stereotype. In general, she argues, "in Dickens's novels young women meant to be lovable tend to be small, pretty, timid, fluttering, and often suffering at the hands of their official protectors." There is an entire middle-class category of "blank and blushing innocents" among his characters.

But what about the elusive Mary Hogarth? Mary, the younger sister of Catherine, lived with the couple in their happier, early years, and died suddenly, inexplicably, at the age of 17. Dickens rushed to her side when she collapsed past 1 a.m. after returning from the theatre. A little over 12 hours later, he found himself holding her lifeless body. Mary Hogarth is the subject of significant critical debate, Douglas-Fairhurst notes. "There is no evidence that Mary was a serious rival to Catherine until she was dead," he declares. But "then she was in every sense untouchable." Tomalin makes very little mention of the serious questions raised by Dickens's response to Mary's death, leaving much to implication and noting that in the aftermath of the tragedy, Dickens's expressed wish to be buried with his sister-in-law wasn't considered all that odd. Reading Douglas-Fairhurst's account, though, one wonders how this treatment could possibly suffice.

It wasn't just that Dickens requested a lock of Mary's hair, wore for the rest of his life a ring taken from her lifeless hand, or long after her death was "inconsolable" upon realizing that not he, but Mary's grandmother and brother would be the ones to be buried with her. It wasn't just, as Tomalin notes but Douglas-Fairhurst omits, that Dickens thanks God that "she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me," or that Mary haunted his dreams for years. By digging through Dickens's writings, Douglas-Fairhurst manages to show us a Dickens completely consumed by regret. Dickens didn't just write Mary into Oliver Twist as the figure of Rose Maylie, Douglas-Fairhurst notes: he has Rose Maylie, the same age and similarly "struck down by a mysterious illness," live where Mary died. In other words, "Dickens was determined to give the story a different ending."

But then comes Douglas-Fairhurst's real coup. The manuscript of Oliver Twist, he writes, shows a paragraph "composed shortly after the first anniversary of Mary Hogarth's death" that Dickens crossed out before apparently changing his mind and reinserting it into the final version: "And now what a host of reflections crowded upon Oliver's mind and busied themselves at his heart. We need to be careful how we deal with those about us, for every death brings with it some small circle of survivors' bitter thoughts of so much omitted and so little done, so many things forgotten and so many more that might have been repaired." Though the scholar does not explicitly judge for the reader whether Mary was the true female companion that might have been, he says this much: "however much he moved around ... one thing remained constant: his sense that no experience would feel complete without Mary being there to share it. ... Even worse than the prospect of jeers was the certainty of silence at the heart of any future applause." And though Tomalin doesn't think Dickens really connects with women, Douglas-Fairhurst points to a jarring note starting Dickens's first diary, about a year after Mary's death:

... if she were with us now, the same winning, happy, amiable companion--sympathising with all my thoughts and feelings more than any one I knew ever did or ever will--I think I should have nothing to wish for, but a continuance of such happiness. But she is gone, and pray God I may one day through his mercy rejoin her.

By this account, how on earth could Mary Hogarth fail to be the turning point of any Dickens biography? Doesn't this sound like a vast opportunity missed, the sort that, even if only half present in his consciousness, might haunt a man, and keep him from engaging meaningfully with other women, for the rest of his life?

Tomalin, of course, with her biography extending straight to Dickens's death, might have more reason to be skeptical: Dickens's other sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, later replaced Mary in living with the family, even drawing some nasty accusations from her sister Catherine after Catherine's and Charles's marriage fell apart. There's also much stronger evidence to support the idea of an affair and long relationship with actress Nelly Ternan, whom Tomalin seems to feel Dickens, on the whole, treated less than ideally while protecting his own reputation.

Does this wind up negating the Mary Hogarth narrative? It depends. From one view, the Douglas-Fairhurst biography is, if nothing else, a brilliant vindication of textual analysis. Its existence proposes the following possible paradox: Tomalin is writing the story of the man, and Douglas-Fairhurst the story of the writer—but in probing the novelist's writings, Douglas-Fairhurst might wind up getting closer to the man than the traditional biographer does; conceivably, to understand an artist's life and humanity, you're better off going straight to his art.

Claire Tomalin's biography is comprehensive, fact-based, unflinching, and thorough. Douglas-Fairhurst's is immersive, obsessive, text-based, and abstract. Claire Tomalin's closing focuses on Dickens's failed marriage, and his significant but not altogether commendable relationships with Georgina Hogarth and Ternan. Douglas-Fairhurst's final page is dedicated to the what-if's he think dogged the novelist's darker moments: "what if" Dickens "had died ... as suddenly and unexpectedly as Mary Hogarth?"

The two accounts are both worth reading, and arguably incomplete without one another. But which one you prefer will depend on whether or not you believe a writer's text is the best window into his soul. It will depend on whether or not you think timelines matter—that what happens in later years sheds light on earlier ones. Which biography you are reading may well also determine how much, by the last page, you want to read a Dickens novel.

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

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