Books May 2010

The Dark Side of Dickens

Why Charles Dickens was among the best of writers and the worst of men

If valid, this analysis would also go some distance to explain the very severe constraints on Dickens’s legendary compassion. This is the man who had a poor woman arrested for using filthy language in the street; who essentially recast his friend Thomas Carlyle’s pessimistic version of the French Revolution in fictional form in A Tale of Two Cities (Slater is especially good on this); who dreaded the mob more than he disliked the Gradgrinds. It would also account for his weakest and most contrived novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and its companion nonfiction compilation, American Notes. Genuine radicals and reformers in mid-19th-century England were to be defined above all as sympathizers with the American Revolution and with the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Dickens was scornful of the first and hostile to the second. His exiguous chapter on slavery in American Notes was lazily annexed word-for-word from a famous abolitionist pamphlet of the day, and employed chiefly to discredit the whole American idea. But when it came to a fight on the question, he was on balance sympathetic to the Confederate states, which he had never visited, and made remarks about Negroes that might have shocked even the pathologically racist Carlyle. I had not understood, before Slater’s explanation, that the full title, American Notes for General Circulation, was a laborious pun on the supposed bankruptcy of the whole “currency” of the United States. Karl Marx, that great supporter of Lincoln and the Union, was therefore probably lapsing into a rare sentimentality when he wrote to Friedrich Engels that Dickens had “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” (Ackroyd mentions this letter, while Slater does not.)

Ackroyd, I find, is also more clear-eyed when it comes to Dickens and the Victorian empire. It’s easy to tell, from the protractedly unfunny sarcasm about Mrs. Jellyby and the mock-African hellhole of Borrioboola-Gha in Bleak House, that the author did not possess the gift of imaginative sympathy when it came to those outside his immediate ken, or should I say kin.

But what is to excuse Dickens’s writing to Angela Burdett-Coutts, about the 1857 Indian rebellion, that if he had the power, he would use all “merciful swiftness of execution to exterminate [these people from] the face of the Earth”? Slater allows this an attenuated sentence, while Ackroyd quotes a fuller and even fouler version of the same letter, adding, “It is not often that a great novelist recommends genocide.” Nor will it do to say that such attitudes were common in that period: when Governor Eyre put down a revolt in Jamaica with appalling cruelty in 1865, it was Dickens and Carlyle who warmly applauded his sadism, while John Stuart Mill and Thomas Huxley demanded that Eyre be brought before Parliament. Once again, Ackroyd emphasizes this while Slater speeds rapidly past it.

Finally, is there not something a trifle sinister in Dickens’s letter to Lord Normanby (such a name of lofty entitlement, he himself would have been hard put to invent), written while he was struggling to finish The Old Curiosity Shop, offering to go to Australia on behalf of the British government and there to write a properly cautionary account of the hellish conditions in Her Majesty’s penal colonies? He had worried that the deterrent effect of this horrible system had been diluted, with too many stories in circulation of ex-convicts making fortunes. Old Magwitch, evidently, should not have been let off so easily … (One of Dickens’s ostensible purposes in visiting America was to study its prisons, yet Slater tells us there is no evidence that he ever troubled to read de Tocqueville, who had formed and carried out the same intention in rather superior form. But what we want to understand is whether Dickens engaged in any vicarious gloating, on this and other “attraction-repulsion” forays into the lower depths.)

What is necessary, therefore, is a portrait that supplies for us what Dickens so generously served up to his hungry readers: some real villainy and cruelty to set against the angelic and the innocent. Yet somehow the same tale continues to write itself. We “know” the bewitching figure so well that speculations are possible about his suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and versions of the bipolar. Claire Tomalin has etched in for us the long-absent figure in the frame, Ellen Ternan, who was plainly the consolation of Dickens’s distraught sexual life. We are aware that the great prose-poet of childhood was acutely conscious of having failed his own offspring. Yet we remain in much the same position as those naive Victorian readers who were so upset when John Forster told them that the respectable old entertainer was a man who had drawn his dramatis personae from wretched life itself. Always saying that he sought rest, and always exhausting himself, he may have been half in love with easeful death. The next biography should take this stark chiaroscuro as its starting point.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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