generously angry

Claire Tomalin – Charles Dickens: A Life

A leviathan of literary prodigality, Dickens. Not so much a novelist, as a compulsive manufacturer of worlds, a novelising magnate, the scribbler-as-captain-of-industry. 'Inimitable', maybe, but also the impresario of his own riotous invention. Since his friend John Forster's authorised account, Dickens has challenged professional biographers to locate the wellspring of his genius (no other word will do), through the passages of a life as populous and energetic as any of the books. A shilling life might give you all the facts, but Peter Ackroyd's Dickens was one English novelist's eccentric, shambolic, unwieldy, undisciplined response to another: an imaginative compte rendu on the Dickens world. It meant to be determinedly unacademic, and drew Craig Raine's fire as “bloated with contradictions, literary-critical baloney and suspect generalizations”. Michael Slater's biography is generally better regarded; but the claim to be 'definitive' at once eludes and galvanizes each new attempt.
          Dickens quite certainly incorporated material from his own life into the novels – and not always in a manner that needed much in the way of lit-crit parsing. To say he 'drew heavily' on his life experience understates the case radically. For the most part, there was nothing unforthcoming about Dickens and his resort to his early life. The dynamo of his creativity was powered by the impulse to take this raw material and refashion it – as if in a bid to grasp its ultimate significance, as if more fully and decisively to possess it. Dickens's imagination is recursive, relentlessly so. The novel he said he was fondest of, David Copperfield, approaches closest to outright autobiography: Dickens revisits the uncertainties of his youth, recasting them, dramatising them. And, with an air of mingled self-reproach and self-knowledge bitterly fought and won, he writes, in the voice of David Copperfield, of the siege of contraries beleaguering his character, that has been meat and potatoes to biographers since:

The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine, in going on here, from page to page, had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the sharp consciousness of many talents neglected, many opportunities wasted, many erratic and perverted feelings constantly at war within his breast, and defeating him.

Dickens is the ardent conservator of his own origins; but his own licensed myth-maker, too. Even with the approach of his bicentenary next year, however, it's worth considering how many more re-evaluations of the life and work might further serve to illuminate either. (I might note that John Carey's The Violent Effigy is probably the best piece of Dickens criticism in many a long year.)
          Claire Tomalin's Life begins briskly enough, retailing the stuff of Dicken's childhood unfussily – disposing of it in a couple of brief, neat chapters. While Ackroyd seemed obsessed with mythologizing this period of Dickens's life quite as unstintingly as Dickens himself, Tomalin sticks to the facts, as far as they can be ascertained. This is salutary, and harms the book in no way. (Ackroyd was altogether given too much to shamanic communing with his subject; as if he were attending a séance.) Tomalin's narrative economy is apparent in the opening staves of her book – perhaps in implied acknowledgement that this is ground that has been covered extensively before. We needn't dwell, therefore, on the helter-skelter round of Dickens's life in the 1830s – when he flirted with the theatre, became a parliamentary reporter (and no mean stenographer), cutting a dandified figure around the purlieus of Covent Garden, finally discovering his metier as sketch-writer – and Tomalin's account of his meeting and engagement to Catherine Hogarth is sharp, unsentimental and largely without comment. We're aware, at this late hour, that Mr Micawber is an exasperated – and broadly truthful – portrait of Dickens's improvident father: and Tomalin doesn't belabour the point.

And one feels that the apparent redundancy of another Dickens biography has in sense freed Tomalin from some of the obligations besetting previous life-writers. There's little new archival material that might have brought something new to the table (Tomalin herself did precisely this in her earlier work, The Invisible Woman, casting valuable light on Dickens's relationship with Nelly Ternan – genuinely ground-breaking; but stealing a march on her own full-length life of Dickens.) And certain events in Dickens's life are related dispassionately, almost coldly – and typically without the feverish speculative boutades biographers of a more critical turn of mind are goaded into. The death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law, for example, is related by Tomalin again as a bare sequence of facts. Tomalin refrains from suggesting – as do other writers, Ackroyd chief among them – that Mary's early death so struck at the core of Dickens's creative spirit that her revenant appears time and again, passim, in the novels, as the figure of the frail female child of Grace – Little Dorrit, Florence Dombey – resurrected and reanimated in fiction... A self-denying ordinance of Tomalin's, perhaps. But she is altogether more engaged, more delighted in Dickens's male friendships – it's in detailing these that she allows her approval to shine through - not least with his friend, sometime agent and confidante, John Forster. (Dickens's dealings with the publishing world Tomalin recounts with a fullness not found in her accounts of his domestic life.)

          George Orwell's essay on Dickens is, in some ways, unsurpassed: it's in the narrow ambit of forty-odd pages that Dickens's talent, his politics, his flaws and triumphs are forever locked down. “When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing,” Orwell rounds it up, “one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page...”:

..Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

This verbal cartouche could, maybe, stand for all the gallons of ink spilt by biographers and critics wishing to pin Dickens's down to a truthful formulation. Tomalin's contribution to the bicentenary celebration next year is honorable, judicious and free of the scatty self-indulgence of Ackroyd's - but perhaps nonetheless a little de trop.

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