I’ve just finished a superb biography of the 19th century British novelist, Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin. “Charles Dickens. A Life”.
It came out in 2011 and I got it for Christmas that year, but have only just got around to reading it. This is typical: I have a stack of books to read then often go out and buy something else on a whim. But I get there in the end!
It’s a beautifully written book, full of fascinating detail about every aspect of Dickens’ life: his childhood, his family, his friends, his works, his myriad activities, his homes, his travels, his faults as well as his strengths. By the end you feel you really know Dickens, the human being. And when he dies, you feel grief. There I was, again, on the Piccadilly Line, choking as I read about he collapsed in his home in Gad’s Hill, near Rochester. The final blow.
Or, according to his long standing companion, Georgina Hogarth, that’s how it ended. There’s an alternative theory – because there are always alternative theories – that he died when with his mistress Nelly Ternan, and was brought to Gad’s Hill, to avoid exposing that affair, which dominated the later part of his life. The simple explanation seems the more likely, but who knows.
The abiding theme of the book, for me, is Dickens’ extraordinary energy. Driven no doubt, by a very difficult childhood, with unreliable parents, lack of money, only intermittent schooling and humiliating work in a blacking factory down by the Thames. But what energy! What variety of activities. The novels, mostly written to be published in installments in magazines, so subject to relentless deadlines. Editorships of various periodicals, writing and performing in any number of plays, endless dinners and events, sponsorship of homes for young women who had fallen into prostitution, reading tours later in life, looking after all sorts of people and families who had fallen on hard times, and then his own family…
Ah, his own family. Viewed from our modern perspective, Dickens doesn’t come out too well. He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836, aged 24. According to Claire Tomalin, they were never that well suited, though he appeared affectionate towards her in his numerous letters. She bore him ten children, one of whom, Dora, died early. She had a pretty hard life, judging by Tomalin’s biography. Many of her pregnancies were difficult, but they kept on coming. Dickens didn’t seem that affectionate towards his children. On the whole they were a bit of a nuisance for him. As was Catherine. He seemed to have been far happier in the company of his men friends, with John Forster to the fore. I’m no expert, but there must be some studies around which suggest that Dickens preferred men to women. At the very least, he could express himself better to men. And he did so very floridly at times. Some of the letters to Forster can only be viewed as love letters, really.
In many ways he seemed closer, too, to Catherine’s sister, Georgina, who lived with them and played a big part in looking after the children. And just being a companion to Charles. According to the book, a platonic relationship, but a very deep and long-lasting one.
And when Dickens finally made the break with Catherine, he treated her abominably. In public, in his writings, as well as in private. She had no way of responding. Not good.
The separation, though it may have been a long time in the making, was sparked by his infatuation with the 18 year old Ellen – Nelly – Ternan. In his mid-forties. She was one of three daughters of the actress Frances Ternan. Dickens encountered them as part of his occasional forays onto the stage, initially when acting, in Manchester, in a play called the “Frozen Deep”, written by Wilkie Collins. Shortly after, he travelled to Doncaster, to spend time with the Ternan family, as they fulfilled an acting engagement. Nelly was on his radar.
According to Tomalin, the relationship with Nelly wasn’t immediately consummated, but eventually it became a central part of his life, and remained so until the end of his life. It was a hidden relationship, only a few special friends being in the know. It would have been unacceptable in Victorian times for such a relationship to be in the open.
It makes you wonder what it would be like now, in this day and age. I think in the sixties and seventies, and probably eighties, it would have been news, but no-one would have been that bothered. But now – probably media hysteria. Quite likely career-destroying.
It’s as if we are back in the Victorian age in terms of how we judge these things publicly, but with far more knowledge of what everyone is doing. There is no way that Dickens could have hidden a relationship with Nelly in 2013. It would all be on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
So how do we judge someone like Charles Dickens in 2013? A brilliant man, fantastic writer, bringing London to life, all life to life. A great liver of life. A wonderful philanthropist, a man committed to improving the lives of the needy and exploited in London and elsewhere. But deeply flawed in his family life, and quite vicious with those family members he fell out with. And obsessed with a young woman almost thirty years younger than him.
I’m not judging. He was just another complex human being. Like all the other complex human beings. Like all of us.
Unlike most, though, he had an amazing talent. He brought humanity to life in the words of his extraordinary novels. So many characters that are now part of our folklore: Oliver, the artful dodger, Scrooge, Gradgrind, David Copperfield.
And in his later years,when he started his readings of his novels, adapted for the stage, he was filling halls, creating hysteria. The first rock’n’roll star?
When I finished reading the book there was only one thing I could do next: read some Dickens. I went down to Belgravia Books in Ebury Street, not far from work, Friday lunch time, and pored over the classics section. I settled for “Bleak House”. Which I haven’t read before. A thousand pages! Page one is brilliant about the London fog. Here’s hoping it stays that way. A long haul.
I know it will engross. It’s Dickens after all…