Contents | May 2002
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens" (September 1861)
"The very title of this book indicates the confidence of conscious genius."
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Public and Private Worlds of Charles Dickens" (April 26, 2002)
Personal recollections, essays, and reviews by Edmund Wilson, David Lodge, and others, shed light on the life and career of Charles Dickens.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2002
Books & Critics
Dickens Our Contemporary
In her new biography Jane Smiley argues that Dickens may have been "the first true celebrity"
by David Lodge
by Jane Smiley
Lipper/Viking, 224 pages, $19.95
he Penguin Lives series consists of short critical biographies of world-famous literary, intellectual, and political figures, commissioned from authors who are distinguished in their own right but not recognized "experts" on the subject in question. For example: Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc. The choice of biographer is not obvious—it may even be at first glance surprising—but it is intriguing, and based on some perceived affinity of temperament, vision, or cultural background between author and subject. The hope, obviously, is that a kind of chemical reaction between biographer and biographee will spark fresh illuminations of subjects who have already been exhaustively studied and written about.
In that respect few subjects offer a tougher challenge than Charles Dickens, with whom the novelist Jane Smiley has been paired. As she acknowledges at the outset of her book, his is "possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history." This is partly because he is arguably second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of English writers, and so has attracted almost as much critical and scholarly attention; but whereas, for historical reasons, comparatively few facts are known about Shakespeare, placing severe constraints on the biographical approach to his work, Dickens lived at the beginning of the Industrial Age, when information itself became industrialized—routinely recorded, reproduced, and (even when hidden) preserved on a vast scale for subsequent generations to discover. As Smiley observes, we know more about Dickens's life, especially his early life, than his own family did, because he concealed from them facts of which he was ashamed or that he found distressing to contemplate, but that were disinterred posthumously. Nevertheless, as Smiley also comments, there remains a paradoxical equivalence between Shakespeare and Dickens: for all the mass of information we have about the latter, the true nature of his character and genius is almost as mysterious as that of the former.
Although new facts are still being discovered about Dickens, it seems unlikely that any such discovery will fundamentally alter our view of his character and work. The only significant originality attainable by the biographer or critic, and the only excuse for adding to the mountain of secondary literature already heaped on his reputation, is in interpretation of the given facts. Smiley, however, explicitly dissociates herself from those critics and biographers who claim to understand an author and his work better than he did himself. "Writing is an act of artistic and moral agency," she asserts firmly, "where choices are made that the author understands, full of implications and revelations that the author also understands." If this attitude somewhat underestimates the contribution of a writer's unconscious to the creative process, it also enables Smiley to make us see Dickens's immense creative achievement afresh without deploying any of the theoretical apparatus and intimidating jargon of modern academic criticism, and without engaging in point-scoring debate with other commentators.
For biographical data Smiley seems to rely mainly on Peter Ackroyd's monumental life. She is clearly a devoted and enthusiastic reader of Dickens's fiction, and this is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification for writing a new critical biography of him. She has found something new and interesting to say primarily by drawing on her own experience of what it is like to write and publish novels. Some of her own—Moo, for example—have a Dickensian abundance of characters, and delight in making narrative connections between apparently unrelated persons; like Dickens's, her novels combine humor and wit with a serious treatment of serious subjects. But one should not exaggerate these purely formal resemblances. What distinguishes Smiley's critical biography is her ability to identify professionally with Dickens. The book's foundation is her acute perception that Dickens was "a true celebrity (maybe the first true celebrity in the modern sense)"—and the first writer, therefore, to feel the intense pressure of being simultaneously an artist and an object of unremitting public interest and adulation. In this and in other, related respects his life and work prefigured much in our own literary culture. If Smiley's book had a title other than the bare name of its subject, it might be (by analogy with the late Jan Kott's influential study of Shakespeare, though for very different reasons) Dickens Our Contemporary.
From the archives:
"Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy" (November 1999)
Understanding the pursuit of celebrity—its psychological roots, its social meaning, its human cost. By Sue Erikson Bloland
elebrity is not the same thing as fame. There were English writers before Dickens who were famous in their own lifetimes—Samuel Richardson, Dr. Johnson, Lord Byron, for example. But they did not cultivate or exploit their fame, and it didn't take over their entire lives, as celebrity always threatens to do. Celebrity entails a certain collaboration and complicity on the part of the subject. It can bring great material rewards and personal satisfactions, but at a cost: the transformation of one's "self" into a kind of commodity. It requires conditions that did not exist before the Industrial Revolution hit its stride: fast and flexible means of production, transportation, and communication, which circulate the work widely and bring the author into actual or virtual contact with his or her audience.
The two greatest novelists of the generation before Dickens—Jane Austen and Walter Scott—both published their novels anonymously: "By the Author of Waverley" and "By the Author of Pride and Prejudice Etc. Etc." Scott achieved fame (and a baronetcy) as a poet, but he did not avow authorship of his novels until relatively late in his career. Jane Austen's professional identity was known only to a small circle of family and friends until after her death. How unthinkable such self-effacement seems in our personality-obsessed, publicity-conscious age! Even Dickens began by writing under a pseudonym, but he discarded it fairly quickly. It is Dickens who stands symbolically on the threshold of the modern literary era, and whose career embodies the difference between being famous and being a celebrity. The very word "celebrity" as a concrete noun, applied to persons, entered the language only in the mid nineteenth century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1849—the year Dickens published David Copperfield and stood unchallenged as the greatest and most popular writer of his age.
Dickens not only wrote novels that became classics of English literature in his lifetime; he transformed the methods of publishing fiction and thus changed the possibilities of authorship for his contemporaries and his successors. He was, as Smiley reminds us, a brilliant entrepreneur as well as an artist, driven by painful memories of what it was like to be poor and by the excitement of making money through his own efforts. The story of his first, meteoric success is worth recalling. In his early twenties, without private wealth or a conventional gentleman's education behind him, he was eking out a living as a parliamentary reporter and freelance journalist. Some "sketches" of contemporary life among the lower classes, published under the nom de plume "Boz," attracted enough attention to win him a commission that another writer might have treated as hackwork: providing narrative copy to accompany the monthly publication of a series of sporting prints by a popular artist of the day, Robert Seymour. Dickens seized the opportunity and created The Pickwick Papers. Very soon the artist found himself playing a subordinate role, obliged to take instructions from the courteous but determined young writer. The unfortunate and mentally unstable Seymour apparently couldn't bear the humiliation, and blew his brains out while working on the second number. He was replaced by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), and sales of The Pickwick Papers, which had been sluggish at first, suddenly took off on the wings of Dickens's comic genius. Only about 400 copies of the first issue had been published. Before the end the print run was 40,000.
The success of the serial publication of Pickwick encouraged Dickens to use the same or similar methods for his subsequent novels, from Oliver Twist onward, before issuing them in volume form. He launched a miscellany called Master Humphrey's Clock, in which The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge were published in weekly installments. Later he founded a magazine, Household Words, which provided a platform for weekly serialization of his own and other novelists' work. Publication in parts and magazine serialization, pioneered by Dickens, became the standard form for the initial publication of novels in the Victorian age, and it is one reason why he and other writers of high literary quality, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell, commanded a vast audience. Smiley is not the first to draw a parallel with modern television drama. The serialized Victorian novel was something between a mini-series and a soap opera, its installments often appearing over a period of more than a year. The audience absorbed the story and became familiar with the characters in a rhythm almost as slow as that of their own lives. And because Dickens and some of his contemporaries started publishing their novels serially before they had finished writing them, feedback from the audience could affect the development of the story and the roles of the characters. For example, Dickens sent young Martin Chuzzlewit to America in an effort to revive flagging sales, and wrote more and more scenes for Mrs. Gamp as she proved more and more popular with his readers.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly" (April 15, 1997)
A retrospective collection from The Atlantic's past.
Toward the end of the century this solidarity between literary novelists and the reading public began to disintegrate. Some writers—Thomas Hardy was a notable example—fell afoul of the prudish constraints imposed by magazine editors on the representation of sexuality. Others, like Henry James, found that the pursuit of formal beauty and psychological subtlety in their fiction made it less marketable. It is recorded that in 1900 the business manager of this magazine, which had serialized several of James's novels, "begged the editor ... 'with actual tears in his eyes' not to print another 'sinker' by James lest the Atlantic be thought 'a "high-brow" periodical.'" The business manager's plea was symptomatic and prophetic. In the modern period a split developed between cutting-edge literary fiction and middlebrow entertainment fiction. Practitioners of the former, such as James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf, resigned themselves, with good or ill grace, to addressing a small but discriminating readership, and were often exiles from their own society in either a literal or a metaphorical sense. Exponents of the traditional, page-turning novel with a well-made plot and an unproblematic rendering of social reality, such as Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Compton Mackenzie, and J. B. Priestley, were the commercially successful literary "celebrities," interviewed in, discussed by, and contributing to the mass media. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, this divide became less evident—indeed, almost invisible. For a variety of reasons, some cultural, some socio-economic, literary fiction became more reader-friendly and an object of exploitative interest to the mass media and big business. The "literary best seller" (that is, an ambitious and innovative book that also sells in vast numbers, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose or Toni Morrison's Beloved), which would have seemed a contradiction in terms in the period of high modernism, once again became an achievable goal, as it had been in Dickens's era. The authors of such books are celebrities. Even the modestly successful literary novelist today is expected to help with the marketing of his or her work—by giving interviews, appearing on TV and radio, taking part in public readings, book-signings, and other meet-the-author events—and thus experiences, in a pale form, the phenomenon of author-as-celebrity that Dickens's career inaugurated, and the stresses and contradictions that go with it.
Dickens was, of course, "the Inimitable"—it was an epithet he enjoyed invoking himself—and he experienced both the gratifications and the penalties of celebrity on a heroic scale. The success of his early novels was phenomenal. By the age of thirty, Smiley observes, he was already the most famous writer of his day. "He had achieved not simply literary success, but something else, a separate status. His voice and his vision had become beloved; as Ackroyd puts it, he was 'public property.'" A letter to his friend and confidant John Forster about a public dinner given for him in Edinburgh in June of 1841 shows Dickens's awareness that there was something unprecedented about the position he had attained in English life: "The tone of his letter was exultant, pleased, and, at least to some degree, amazed," Smiley writes. "He seems to have been especially struck by the fact that he was so young and the men who came to celebrate him were old and established."
The exceptional popularity of his books extended to the New World. The story of the crowds waiting on the quays in New York for the ship carrying the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to dock, calling out to the passengers and crew, "Is Little Nell dead?," is well known. But it was on his first visit to America, in 1842, not long after that triumphal dinner in Edinburgh, that Dickens discovered celebrity could be a curse as well as a blessing. He was lionized, fêted, and royally entertained, and at first he was delighted by all the attention. But soon the relentless glare of publicity, the intrusiveness of American journalists, and the impossibility of securing any peace and privacy for himself and his wife, Catherine (who had reluctantly accompanied him), became too much. "We can recognize it," says Smiley, the seasoned modern pro, "as a nightmare book tour, the author and his wife unprotected by publicists or any sort of previous experience." Dickens became uneasy, irritable, and openly critical of the host country. His bitter complaints about American publishers' pirating of his work, however justified they may now appear to us, were not well received. The euphoria of his initial reception turned to sourness, with disillusionment on both sides. Smiley comments shrewdly,
The new machinery of capitalistic publishing had carried his work far and wide, bringing a single man, a single voice, into a personal relationship with huge numbers of people whom he had never met, and yet who felt intimate with him, because the novel is, above all, an intense experience of prolonged intimacy with another consciousness. But both the author and the readers had misread the relationship.
The same kind of misreading would in due course occur in England; but there, because of the stratified class system and more complex code of manners, the line between public and private life was still implicitly understood and respected. American society in the 1840s, brash and democratic, prefigured our Age of Publicity, in which anyone in public life is deemed to be a legitimate object of media attention, all the time. Politicians and film stars have learned to cope with this by performing their private lives in public while actually living them in secret, in the company of other celebs, protected by walls and security guards. But the professional lives of politicians and film stars do not necessarily entail the kind of self-disclosure that seems inherent in writing novels. As Smiley emphasizes, the novel is, among all the literary genres and artistic forms, peculiarly focused on consciousness, on the representation of the thoughts and feelings that most of us, most of the time, keep to ourselves: "The intimacy [Dickens's readers] felt through the work came from the natural power of the novel to cross the boundaries of appearance and reveal the inner life." That is to say, not only the inner lives of the characters but also the inner life of the man who created them. "Authors live in a dialogue with their work, and their work is their inner life made concrete," she writes. Modern novelists have developed various defenses and disguises—limited point of view, impersonal or unreliable narrators, metafictional tricks of all kinds—to deter readers from making simplistic inferences about the author from his work. But the omniscient authorial voice favored by Dickens and most other Victorian novelists encouraged their readers to feel that the text they held in their hands was a direct line to a real human being; that the "Charles Dickens" whose name appeared on the title page of the novel was identical with the man who actually wrote the book. But the authorial persona is a rhetorical construction, a "second self," as the Chicago critic Wayne Booth called it. When the real author encounters real readers, the experience can be uncomfortable on both sides.
t is important to recognize, however, that Dickens's celebrity was not forced upon him. He invited it and, most of the time, enjoyed it. It satisfied an element in his character that delighted in public performance and role-playing. Smiley rightly emphasizes his love of the theater and his enthusiasm for acting. While writing Pickwick, he sometimes went to the theater every night of the week. As a young man, he seriously considered becoming a professional actor, and only indisposition prevented him from attending an audition that might have set him on a different career path. As it was, he somehow found time, amid all his writing and editing and business and philanthropic enterprises and domestic responsibilities, to produce and act in elaborate amateur theatricals that were often performed in public theaters before large audiences. A painting by a Royal Academician portrays him in magnificent costume as Bobadill, in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, which Dickens also directed. This fascination—one might almost call it an obsession—with the theater left its mark on Dickens's novels, not only where they deal directly with the stage, such as the Crummles episodes in Nicholas Nickleby and Wopsle's performance as Hamlet in Great Expectations, but in his distinctive way of creating characters and making them speak and constructing scenes of interaction between them. Ackroyd noted Dickens's remark, as reported by a friend, that he "believed he had more talent for the drama than for literature, as he certainly had more delight in acting than in any other work whatever." It seems obvious that if the Victorian theater had been as receptive to the literary imagination as the Elizabethan was, Dickens would have been a playwright, like Shakespeare, rather than a novelist; but the Victorian theater was in fact trivial and philistine, reducing tragedy to melodrama and comedy to farce. Indeed, even its melodrama frequently degenerated into unintentional farce, as Dickens recognized, giving a parodic example in Nicholas Nickleby.
The plot was most interesting. It belonged to no particular age, people, or country, and was perhaps the more delightful on that account, as nobody's previous information could afford the remotest glimmering of what would ever come of it. An outlaw had been very successful in doing something somewhere, and came home in triumph, to the sound of shouts and fiddles, to greet his wife—a lady of masculine mind, who talked a good deal about her father's bones, which it seemed were unburied, though whether from a peculiar taste on the part of the old gentleman himself, or the reprehensible neglect of his relations, did not appear. This outlaw's wife was somehow or other mixed up with a patriarch, living in a castle a long way off, and this patriarch was the father of several of the characters, but he didn't exactly know which, and was uncertain whether he had brought up the right ones in his castle, or the wrong ones, but rather inclined to the latter opinion, and, being uneasy, relieved his mind with a banquet, during which solemnity somebody in a cloak said, 'Beware!' which somebody was known by nobody (except the audience) to be the outlaw himself, who had come there for reasons unexplained, but possibly with an eye to the spoons.
The sublimely funny passage from which this is extracted shows Dickens to have been well aware of the absurdity of much of the popular drama of his day, but he, too, drew directly on melodramatic diction and gesture at the emotional climaxes of his stories, and this can create problems for modern readers. Dickens did not mean us to smile when, in the same novel, the young hero prevents the tyrant schoolmaster Squeers from beating the boy Smike in this kind of language: "'Wretch,' rejoined Nicholas, fiercely, 'touch him at your peril! I will not stand by and see it done; my blood is up, and I have the strength of ten such men as you. Look to yourself, for by Heaven I will not spare you, if you drive me on.'"
n the winter of 1856-1857 Dickens collaborated with his friend and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins on a melodrama titled The Frozen Deep. The story was loosely based on the British Arctic expedition of 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, in the course of which all the participants lost their lives. Collins wrote the script, but Dickens worked on it too, and took the role of the leader of the expedition, Richard Wardour. Collins had represented him as the villain of the piece, but Dickens rewrote the part, making him into a more complex character who redeems himself by a final act of self-sacrifice. This episode inspired the character of Sydney Carton ("It is a far, far better thing that I do ...") in Dickens's next novel, A Tale of Two Cities; but the play was to have other, more personal consequences for Dickens. In portraying Wardour as a man "perpetually seeking and never finding true affection," Dickens was acting out (in the psychoanalytical sense) his own increasing dissatisfaction with his marriage, and the play was eventually to bring into his life a woman who would apparently satisfy that longing.
By all accounts The Frozen Deep is typical of its period, a creakily contrived vehicle for extravagant displays of emotion and overblown rhetoric. It was first performed privately at Dickens's London home, as a Twelfth Night entertainment for friends, with Dickens's sister-in-law Georgina and two of his daughters in the cast. But an indication of the importance Dickens attached to this production is that he invited newspaper reviewers to watch it. They, and the rest of the audience, were stunned by the intensity of Dickens's performance. Later that year he arranged public performances of the play in Manchester, to raise money for a deceased friend's family. Realizing that his own womenfolk would not be able to hold the stage in a large auditorium, he hired a family of professional actors: Frances Ternan, a widow, and her three daughters, Fanny, Maria, and Ellen ("Nelly"). The first night was a sensation. Dickens reported to a friend, "It was a good thing to have a couple of thousand people all rigid and frozen together in the palm of one's hand ... and to see the hardened Carpenters at the sides crying and trembling at it." Maria Ternan, an experienced actress, could not restrain real tears as she cradled the dying Wardour in her arms at the climax of the piece.
Obviously something very extraordinary was happening in these performances. Like a great professional actor, Dickens was transmuting dramatic base metal into gold, but he was doing so by drawing deeply on all kinds of conflicted personal emotion. The frozen deep of his own psyche was melted, and the experience was a kind of therapy. He wrote to Collins subsequently, "I have never known a moment's peace or content since the last night of The Frozen Deep." But perhaps that remark also reflected his growing attachment to Nelly Ternan and the trouble it caused in his domestic life. As he began to see more and more of her, Dickens also began proceedings to obtain a legal separation from Catherine, but he indignantly denied that there was any connection between these developments, and insisted, in rather embarrassing and undignified public pronouncements, that his friendship with an unnamed "young lady" was entirely proper and her character irreproachable. In due course he set up Nelly and her mother (who conferred a kind of respectability on the arrangement) in various houses in England and France, and visited them discreetly; but whether she was actually his mistress and, as was rumored, bore him a child, no one has been able to ascertain, including Claire Tomalin, who has written the definitive study of the relationship. Dickens had by this time learned to protect his private life with great skill, and Nelly, who lived to the age of seventy-five, kept the facts of their relationship to herself.
Dickens's attitude to love, marriage, and sexuality, in his life and in his work, is a complex and puzzling subject. Most of his biographers have been baffled by his choice of Catherine Hogarth as a wife. His letters to her during their courtship give no clue, conveying little sense of real passion. She was rather dull, and not particularly good-looking. Gamely as she tried, she was quite incapable of responding adequately to her husband's intelligence, wit, imagination, and energy. What did he see in her? The simplest explanation is that he was a virile but idealistic young man who wished urgently to satisfy his sexual drive in a morally and socially approved fashion, and she was the first woman to accept him. He had courted the love of his youth, Maria Beadnell, for three frustrating years, only to be rejected by her and her family because of his uncertain prospects. When he met Catherine, these were improving, and he married her on the strength of the Pickwick commission. He claimed later that he realized after only two years that the marriage had been a mistake, yet he went on sleeping with Catherine, and impregnating her, until—after twenty-one years, ten children, and several miscarriages—he told her maid to erect a partition in their bedroom so that they could sleep apart. That was in 1857, the year he met Nelly Ternan.
The regular pregnancies imply a certain frequency of intercourse, but Dickens plainly stopped desiring Catherine fairly early in the marriage, complaining that she had grown fat and clumsy and chronically unwell. It seems unlikely that she invited or insisted on conjugal sex, since it was the continual childbearing that undermined her health. (There was, of course, no question of using contraception.) One can only suppose that for Dickens it was the equivalent of those twenty- or thirty-mile walks that he was fond of taking, at an average speed of 4.5 miles an hour—a way of releasing and relieving the extraordinary energy and nervous tension pent up in his small, neat body, while his dutiful wife lay back and thought of England (or, perhaps, The Pickwick Papers). The novels throw no direct light on the subject, because they contain not a single word about physical sexuality. Extreme reticence on this aspect of human behavior was of course compulsory for all Victorian novelists, but Dickens, unlike many of his peers (Thackeray, for example), does not seem to have chafed under the constraint. His imagination was exceptionally chaste. There is not a risqué joke, or a single scene that would "bring a blush into the cheek of the young person" (Podsnap's phrase), in his entire oeuvre. For an essentially comic writer this is a remarkable achievement.
He seems to have subscribed to the view, widely held (or at least professed) among the Victorian middle classes, that normal women didn't have sexual appetites and put up with men's for the sake of matrimony and motherhood. His heroines are either childlike or saintly, pre-sexual or asexual (Dora and Agnes, in David Copperfield, are prime examples of each type, and Amy Dorrit combines the two). In life Dickens's most intense emotional relationships were with younger, virginal women, notably Mary Hogarth, Catherine's younger sister, who lived with them at the beginning of their married life and died suddenly and tragically, in Dickens's arms, aged only seventeen. He wore one of her rings for the rest of his life, kept her clothes and a lock of her hair, and said it was impossible to exaggerate her influence on him. In due course his sister-in-law Georgina came to occupy a similar place in the household. She was a more intimate companion to Dickens than Catherine, and rumors that she was his mistress were quashed only when she submitted to a medical examination and was declared to be a virgin. Perhaps with Nelly he finally achieved a relationship that was both emotionally and erotically satisfying. One rather hopes so.
n the 1850s Dickens was going through what we would call a midlife crisis. Smiley does not attempt to excuse his treatment of Catherine, which was deplorable, but by viewing the episode from the perspective of our own "divorce culture," and by empathizing with Dickens in the peculiar psychological pressures he suffered as artist, entrepreneur, and celebrity, she makes his behavior comprehensible. Like Edmund Wilson, in his classic essay "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," she sees the novelist's imagination as essentially dualistic—constantly affirming the necessity for virtue, love, and altruism, but constantly attracted to the portrayal of evil, cruelty, and hypocrisy. It is a critical commonplace that Dickens's most memorable characters are all morally flawed, if not outright villains. The unregenerate Scrooge is much more entertaining than the reformed one. Wilson traced this deep, dark vein in the novelist's work back to a traumatic episode in his childhood, when the twelve-year-old Dickens's father was imprisoned for debt and the boy was abruptly ejected from home and school and sent to work sticking labels on bottles in a blacking factory on the bank of the Thames, in the company of rats and a young orphan called Bob Fagin. Dickens kept this episode a secret from family and friends for most of his life. Around 1850 he wrote down the story for his eyes only, and later showed it to John Forster, who published it in his posthumous biography. "The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless," Dickens wrote, "of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written." Of course it was written, indirectly, in Dickens's incomparable rendering of oppressed and helpless children in his fiction, confirming Wilson's thesis. But Smiley cautions us against too reductively Freudian an interpretation of Dickens when she points out that novelists do not merely draw on personal experience of conflict in creating their work—they also in a sense discover it in the process of writing: "Art that has a revelatory effect upon the reader had its first revelatory effect upon the writer; the process of working out the plots and the relationships in an ambitious novel is always a learning process."
Writing fiction, in Smiley's view, is a way of imposing order on the chaotic flux of experience, to make it comprehensible and to project a vision of what it should or might be, and she offers the interesting suggestion that Dickens tried to make the real world correspond to his fictionally ordered version of it. She argues that the extraordinary amount of time and energy he expended on nonliterary activities of a philanthropic and social nature—the good works, the fundraising, the consciousness-raising, the speeches and dinners and parties and Christmas festivities and amateur theatricals—is best explained as an effort to embody in his own life the vision of the good society implicit in his books. To outward appearance he succeeded to an astonishing degree; but inwardly he was disappointed and unfulfilled in two aspects of his life: the affective and the erotic. In Nelly Ternan he saw a last chance to make up for this lack and seized it, putting in jeopardy the whole edifice of bourgeois respectability he had laboriously constructed. That is Smiley's analysis of the affair, and it is persuasive, as is her account of its effect on his professional career.
In spite of the smokescreen Dickens created around his relationship with Nelly, the rumors and journalistic coverage damaged his reputation as a model Victorian public man. "His ties to the mainstream ... loosened," Smiley writes. The values and aspirations of the middle-class reading public were no longer embodied unproblematically in his novels, which became darker and less reader-friendly. Younger readers found his work eccentrically old-fashioned; older readers regretted the passing of the genial, cheerful, reassuring tone of the early books.
In his own life he cultivated "the sorts of relationships that are primary in our century—one-to-one intimacies on the one hand, joined with star-to-audience performances on the other." These performances were the public readings that occupied Dickens more and more in the last decade of his life, and which undoubtedly hastened his death, in 1870, at the age of fifty-eight. They were by all accounts extraordinary events. Without the aid of artificial amplification he held huge audiences (2,000 in Birmingham, 3,700 in Bradford) spellbound. Listeners fainted at his rendering of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. It was a natural extension of his enthusiasm for amateur theatricals, but by now Dickens was the complete professional. He revised the extracts from his novels to make them dramatically more effective, rehearsed every nuance of his delivery, and supervised every detail of the staging and lighting. He made a good deal of money from these performances, but that was not his primary motive for undertaking them. He was addicted to the high that comes from thrilling and controlling an audience. Smiley is also surely right to argue that it was a way of maintaining his unique relationship with the public. His readings consisted mostly of "golden oldies" from his early novels—A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit. The appropriate modern analogy is not the more or less competent reading by a more or less nervous novelist in a bookshop or a literary-festival marquee but the triumphal tour of an aging, still charismatic pop star.
n so short a book there is no room for extended critiques of individual novels, but Smiley gives a lucid account of Dickens's development as a novelist, and makes the grounds for her admiration clear. The earliest novels were remarkable mainly for their stylistic verve and virtuosity, especially in dialogue. The authorial narrator observes a rather stilted literary decorum, but the speech of characters like Sam Weller and Mr. Jingle is Shakespearean in its individuality and expressiveness. Sam, Smiley writes, "adds something unexpected to the narrative every time he opens his mouth." Structurally Pickwick is a mess and Nicholas Nickleby is not much better, but Dickens "was always striving in his work to include more and more, to make each novel bigger and broader and also more particular, and to make the links between all things less linear and more netlike." Martin Chuzzlewit is the first novel that Dickens unified by playing variations on a single theme (selfishness), but the narrative links are still rather strained. Smiley believes that Dombey and Son was Dickens's first fully achieved masterpiece, and few would disagree with her.
Since Lionel Trilling's seminal essay on Little Dorrit, academic critics have particularly admired that novel, and Bleak House (which belongs to the same phase of Dickens's career), perhaps because these books' somber social vision, complex structure, and elaborate symbolism lend themselves to critical exegesis. Smiley recognizes the originality and ambitiousness of these works, but her own preference is for novels like Dombey and David Copperfield, in which the relationship between narrative and theme is looser, and the political is subordinated to the personal. Here again her identification with her subject is clear: "The controversies that arise about Dickens's real political views, in my opinion, arise primarily from the fact that a novelist always, and increasingly, sees the trees rather than the forest, and is naturally unsympathetic to a collective solution, while always more or less in favor of a connective solution." The indefinite article before "novelist" is revealing. She is right to point out that Dickens, though a radical, was not in our terms ideologically left-liberal. He despised politics, and advocated a "change of heart" as a solution to society's problems. He undoubtedly held views that we would regard today as "racist, imperialist, sometimes anti-Semitic." Fortunately, they were not central to his imaginative vision.
Although Dickens was the greatest of Victorian novelists, his work did not flow in the same direction as the strongest literary current of the period, which was toward greater and greater realism in the rendering of the social world and of individual psychology. In that respect the somewhat younger George Eliot was much more representative, and it is significant that in an article written in 1856, at the threshold of her own literary career, she criticized Dickens's depiction of human beings because he failed to "give us their psychological character." Henry James (who as a child hid under a table to listen to his father reading David Copperfield aloud, and was discovered when he was unable to restrain his sobs at the pathos of the story) put the boot into Our Mutual Friend in the same year that he published his first tale under his own name, complaining in a review that it was "wanting in inspiration" and its characters were "lifeless, forced, mechanical." Smiley, on the contrary, regards it as "Dickens's perfect novel, seamless and true and delightful in every line."
The prestige of the Jamesian poetics of fiction in the modern period, reinforced in England by the rather humorless and puritanical school of the critic F. R. Leavis (he famously dismissed Dickens as an "entertainer" in The Great Tradition , though he offered a more generous estimate later), inhibited critical appreciation of Dickens. Smiley suggests that our postmodernist age is more receptive to his kind of "flat," larger-than-life, often grotesque characterization.
Dickens appeals to that part of the reader that recognizes that much is left undiscussed by reasonable discourse, that people and institutions often do populate our inner lives not as who they are but as what they mean to us, and that we often do not see them whole and complex, but simple and strange. This view, of course, has an affinity with childhood, as Dickens had an affinity with childhood, but it also has an affinity with many states of consciousness throughout life, including madness or obsession and exalted states of love or spiritual transcendence. That Dickens submerged into his style many good, useful, and humane ideas is a testament to the fact that his vision did not prevent him from living and working in the world, but simply intensified his experience of it. As he said to Forster, "Only think what the desperate intensity of my nature is."
Indeed. Jane Smiley has herself thought deeply about that desperately intense nature, and has enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the work it produced.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2002; Dickens Our Contemporary; Volume 289, No. 5; 92.