Dickens, A Life – Claire Tomalin

12 November 2012
Prologue and Chapters 1-2, to 1827
I’m loving this. I don’t usually read literary biographies, but I must be in the perfect target group for this one. I’ve re-read David Copperfield recently, the one Dickens called his ‘favourite child’ – it isn’t my favourite at all – and everybody knows it’s full of autobiographical elements. And I only finished re-reading Great Expectations last month, a novel in which Dickens develops a more reflective approach to the subject of growing from childhood to mature adulthood. I was aware of the recent publication of Tomalin’s book as I was reading both of them, and I always intended to read it to find out more about how Dickens made use of incidents and experiences from his own life.

As expected, Chapters 1 and 2 are full of ghostly echoes, or pre-echoes, of the novels. Ok. But Tomalin chooses to begin somewhere else entirely. The Prologue is a clever move: eight pages subtitled ‘The Inimitable, 1840’, describing an episode when Dickens was 28. To begin with he is an unnamed juror at an inquest in which a sad little maid is questioned about the death of her newborn child. He successfully argues for her, and later helps her to find a new job – at a time, Tomalin tells us, when he must have been ‘the busiest’ of all the jurors. She widens the scope, and soon she has mentioned characters from his first three novels: Pickwick, Oliver and one we have to place for ourselves, Squeers. Dickens is already successful, already well-known for his humour and compassion both in his writing and his life… and he has so much energy that when he refers to himself, perhaps only half-jokingly, as ‘the Inimitable’ we can see what he means. The man’s a dynamo, and Tomalin ends the Prologue with the words of someone who met him: ‘I remember how everyone lighted up when he entered.’

Chapters 1 and 2 cover Dickens’ life up to the age of 15, and they begin – unlike Dickens in David Copperfield – long before he was born. Chapter 1 is ‘The Sins of the Fathers’, and those pre-echoes start early: his father, John Dickens, is the model for Mr Micawber. He was as genteelly incapable of living within his means as was Micawber, and the famous maxim, ‘Annual income twenty pounds…’ is one of John Dickens’ own. Born to parents in service but always sure that he could do better, his early life and aspirations were made complicated by the possibility that he might have been the illegitimate son of his parents’ master. Later, he always considered himself as a gentleman.

The connection, real or imagined, seems to have helped to get him well-paid jobs in naval administration, but his tastes were always more expensive than even his generous salary could pay for. Over the years, the houses lived in by the increasingly large family became smaller and less smart, the moves more frequent, often with bills left unpaid. John Dickens borrowed from friends and relatives – John Barrow, his wife’s brother, refused to have him in his house again after he failed to repay £200 – and when the crisis came, nobody was willing to help him stay out of debtor’s prison.

I’m jumping the gun, because this didn’t happen until Charles was twelve and already working at the blacking factory, one of the most formative experiences of his life. Before this, there had been chapters in his life that he always looked back on as idyllic, and a lot of them – like the factory experience – are pre-echoes of David Copperfield. First there was London, which the young Dickens was too young to remember. Then there was Portsmouth – a big house, then a smaller one, like the one lived in by Fanny Price’s parents in Mansfield Park, apparently – and then there was Kent. Dickens’ memories of Kent are the idyll of his childhood. The Medway marshes and Rochester are the non-London settings for Great Expectations. The bridge at Rochester is the one that David Copperfield crosses… and so on. But, equally (or more) importantly, are his sense of security, his growing interest in reading and performing – someone describes him as a ‘prodigy’ – and the education he starts to receive.

And then it ends. It isn’t sudden, although the Navy’s needs are changing as the wars with France finally end and his father has to move to a job in London, leaving Dickens in lodgings to complete the term at school. When he does move to London it’s the making of him. At first it’s through the contact the family has with a surprisingly rich cultural life through people like John Dilke, colleague of John Dickens and friend of Keats until the poet’s death. (Dilke later became editor of the Athenaeum and one of Dickens’ early mentors.) And there was Dickens’ uncle John Barrow, the one who wouldn’t have John Dickens in the house. His beginnings had been as humble as Dickens’ father’s, but Tomalin suggests that he became a far more influential role model. Despite a broken thigh at the age of 15, leading to the amputation of his leg in later life, Barrow was energetic, hard-working and helpful to his nephew. (Dickens also had problems with his health as a child: mysterious pains and spasms in his side that made him reluctant to join in with games.)

London life is endlessly interesting for the young Dickens. He walks, makes an excursion alone to Covent Garden after reading an account of it, begins to make observations of the people he sees. Tomalin points out how unusual it is for a young boy – we’re talking about when he is between ten and twelve – to make written character sketches of the old people he meets. Yep. His formal education is indifferent, but he has access to a lot of books, and develops a lifelong interest in plays. And then, at the end of the summer when he is eleven – this must be 1823 – he doesn’t begin the new term at school. He runs errands for his mother, helps to look after his brothers and sisters, does his best to fill his time. But…

But what? Some time during the following spring, when James Lamert, a friend and former lodger, suggested Dickens might come and work for him, his father made a strange decision. This is the famous ‘blacking factory’ episode, and it traumatised Dickens. He worked there for just over a year, and it consisted of sticking and writing labels on bottles of blacking. Dickens recycles the experience in David Copperfield, in which the experience is considerably more demeaning: David is a lowly bottle-washer, and his being sent there is a clear demonstration of his stepfather’s contempt for him. This is clearly how it felt for Dickens, and he expresses it through his fictional alter-ego. David, a fish out of water, isn’t made for such a life as this – and lets us know how miserable it all is by telling us how ‘no words can express the secret agony of my soul.’ Eventually John Dickens ‘emerged from his trance’, as Tomalin puts it, and let his son resume his education at the age of thirteen. It was his mother who ‘warmly’ wanted him to return not to the school but to the factory – there had been some disagreement between Lamert and John Dickens – and he never forgot this. But his mother did, apparently: in later life Dickens made a big thing of declaring that his parents never once referred to his year in the factory.

What makes it even more odd is that during this time Dickens’ father was paying for his older sister Fanny to attend the Royal Academy of Music. While he was still working at the factory Dickens attended a concert given by her and other students, and Tomalin finds it hard to believe his insistence that he was not resentful. What I’m finding interesting is the way Dickens deals with what has happened to him. He clearly feels sorry for himself but, Tomalin assures us, doesn’t express his misery directly. Ok. But in his fiction – and, crucially, in his life – he speaks for young people who are suffering through no fault of their own. As it happens, I don’t get on with those parts of David Copperfield where David, as first-person narrator, describes the atrocious treatment he receives and the effect it has on him – ‘the secret agony of my soul’ and all that. It’s the novels in which Dickens turns his anger outwards, and in the campaigning spirit we’ve glimpsed in the Prologue, that are far more striking – and far more interesting. A man who was treated indifferently as a child, and was certainly not given the chances to improve himself that he deserved – he wistfully contemplates the idea of Cambridge at this time – gets over it in adulthood and appears to spend a lot of energy doing his best for others less well off than himself.

It’s early days yet, and a couple of episodes from his childhood and adulthood don’t prove anything…. But Tomalin’s Prologue has got me thinking. He isn’t just a dynamo, he’s a man who, to an unusual degree, can turn his gaze away from himself and on to the plight of others.

17 November
Chapters 3-7, 1827-1839
In Chapter 5, during what Tomalin calls Dickens’ annus mirabilis, 1836, he is becoming a hugely popular author whilst still working full-time as a respected newspaper reporter. Publishers are engaged in a bidding war – rather badly managed by Dickens himself – and he’s making enough money to have married and have a child on the way…. And he’s still only 24 years old. I was trying to think of an equivalent in our own time of the speed of his rise to fame and popularity – it only began the previous year – and I could only come up with the Beatles in 1964. Or maybe Bob Dylan, as documented in D A Pennebaker’s wonderful film of his visit to London in 1965, Don’t Look Back. In 1836 everybody wanted a piece of him, everybody wanted to read the latest instalment of Pickwick, and when he appeared on stage at the first performance of the comic opera he had written and produced – even though it wasn’t very good – he was applauded to the echo. He was still ‘Boz’ then, and he was a phenomenon.

I realise I’m doing what Tomalin did with her Prologue, creating a snapshot of what Dickens’ extraordinary energy had enabled him to do by a jaw-droppingly young age. Quite often while reading this book you have to stop to remind yourself of how quickly everything happened. But I need to rewind: the last time I wrote, Dickens was just getting used to being at school again.

It didn’t last. John Dickens was bound to get into difficulties again, and soon he couldn’t afford the fees. So at the age of fifteen Dickens needed to find a job, which he did, nominally as a clerk but really as an office-boy. In his workplace, as at school for the short time he was there, he was well liked by the other boys for his mimicry and stories. But he was aware of his own lack of education and thought hard about what skills he needed to develop if he was going to make a proper living. There are more David Copperfield moments as he learns shorthand, eventually getting work at Doctors Commons reporting on legal cases. He never really changed the opinions he reached at that time about the law, as the novels show: his lawyers are either pompous time-servers, more concerned about their comforts than any idea of justice – I’m thinking of Spenlow, Dora’s father – or downright malicious.

It was piecemeal work, and he had to wait to be picked out from amongst others each day. Eventually he found work – I can’t remember how – as a reporter in Parliament, and the experience helped to radicalise him. He was unimpressed by all but a tiny handful of politicians, but a few did impress, men like William Cobbett. He reported on the Reform Act, and the more he learnt about how things worked the more convinced he was that things needed to change. I’ll come back to that….

Meanwhile, he continued to write for his own pleasure. He describes the thousands of men who work in London, walking the three miles or so from the new northern suburb of Camden each morning after picking up their bread rolls, baked an hour earlier than in central London just for them. Later, having joined the British Museum to use the Reading Room (he tried to go every morning), he describes a middle-aged man there. He wears a shabby suit, but one day appears in a sparklingly black suit instead. It soon becomes clear that his old suit has been ‘revived’ by some cheap proprietary product – which first begins to wear away at the seams, then is washed away entirely. The man joins the walking commuters as an archetype of all those who haven’t been able to make as much of their lives as they might have hoped. Tomalin assures us that these portraits are often funny but never cruel. Yep.

Dickens was still living at home, in one northern suburb or another depending on the situation with his father and his creditors. One of the houses was in the Polygon, which Tomalin uses as a metaphor of John Dickens’ aspirations. It had been built as a speculation, a Regency circus that would become the hub of a grand development that never happened. Now it provided cheap lodgings, and contained plenty of aspiring writers and artists who hadn’t made it yet – and, the implication is, never would. One of Dickens’ techniques as a novelist is to use his characters’ dwelling-places for some metaphorical purpose (Miss Havisham’s decaying house and Wemmick’s comically fortified ‘castle’ in Great Expectations come to mind) and you can see why Tomalin, who must have steeped herself in Dickens for years while writing this, would fall into it.

Time passes, although Dickens is still in his teens. In 1830, at 18, he meets Maria Beadnell. She is the one he decides is the love of his life, and for a while the feeling is mutual. And then it isn’t. Her family didn’t think he was good enough for her – i.e. he wasn’t likely ever to make enough money – and they sent her away to France. By the time she came back it was clear she was over him, but he persisted for a while. Years later he wrote to tell her that her treatment of him was to blame for his later inability to show genuine affection to anyone except his own children. (He took his revenge by exaggerating her capriciousness and silliness in Dora, one of my least favourite characters in any Dickens novel. As Tomalin reminds us, David Copperfield has his cake and eats it: he marries his ‘child-wife’ but she dies before he grows to regret it.)

While working as a Parliamentary reporter there was enough about his personality to attract some of the politicians, and he began to make friends. Several are mentioned, notably John, later Earl Russell. But Dickens’ greatest interest was the theatre. Tomalin is keen for us to understand how close he came to a different career entirely. He took lessons in acting, was fond of writing pieces for performance at home, and in 1832, aged 20, he was booked for an audition to become a professional actor. One of his terrible colds forced him to cancel, but he promised to apply again the following year. He never did, of course, and we realise why: when we get to 1833 he was beginning to take his own writing a lot more seriously.

This is the year when he decided that Parliamentary reporting wasn’t the thing for him. It was patchy work, and there was the long summer recess to worry about. A friend, I forget which, introduced him to a journalist on The Morning Chronicle with a view to his getting a job. The journalist liked him but, possibly because of his lack of a formal education, he wasn’t taken on. But later that year he got his first ‘sketch’ published, anonymously and unpaid, in the small-circulation Monthly. His story was liked, because it’s good – it’s the one about two cousins representing opposite types – and he got more unpaid commissions from the same magazine up to the spring of 1834. He used the name ‘Boz’, a shortened version of ‘Boses’ – i.e. Moses pronounced by Dickens with one of his frequent colds – which was a family nickname. There are teasing references at the end of Chapter 3 (‘Becoming Boz’) to the way that it is as Boz that he will rise to fame.

But that isn’t yet. He’s 22, still living at home, and his father is still getting into debt. (He’s been given a fairly generous pension and gets money as a writer, but it is never enough.) Dickens was always good at making friends, and the one Tomalin singles out is Henry Austin, who later married his sister Letitia. Meanwhile in Parliament Dickens was disgusted by the way the overwhelming superiority of the arguments against the planned new Poor Law did not prevent it becoming law. This is what led to the appalling system of workhouses which, Tomalin reminds us, would be a disgrace to society for decades to come. Friends suggest to Dickens that he might consider running for Parliament, but his experiences made him decide that he would make more of a difference through his writing (Does she remind us at this point that Oliver Twist, Dickens’ second novel, is his response to the Poor Law? She might do.)

He was finally taken on by The Morning Chronicle, whose owner and editors saw it as a radical rival to The Times… and this is where Tomalin begins to mention his salaries and fees. He started at five guineas per week, a good whack for a new reporter. The editor was John Black, and a fellow journalist was Thomas Beard who later became a great friend and the best man at his wedding. Beard was one of the friends who responded to Dickens’ pleas for financial help for his father, whose debts were becoming unmanageable again. Dickens worried that if his father failed again he, as a resident in the same house, might be implicated. Five pounds was enough to save John Dickens this time… but Dickens decided it was time to move out. He could afford a place at Furnival’s Inn at 35 guineas per year.

The editor of a new sister paper, The Evening Chronicle, was George Hogarth, a former Edinburgh lawyer. Inevitably, he became a friend, and his daughter Catherine later became Dickens’ wife. Tomalin tells us now that this was to be ‘the biggest mistake of his life.’ But Dickens clearly saw the need for order in his life, had the usual sexual appetites but no wish to make use of the London prostitutes he had come to know so much about through his work….

1835 was even busier than the previous year. He was actively wooing Catherine, and often travelling to different parts of the country as the Chronicle’s political correspondent. It was around the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and what he saw for himself, for instance at one particular by-election, often disgusted him. Protesters were charged down by the local military, apparently led by Tory clergymen and magistrates – whose candidate, inevitably, was duly elected. For this, he did his utmost to get in his copy to the paper before the Times correspondent, often exhausting himself in the process.

So pressure of work forced him to give up his other writing, yes? As if. He was completing the libretto for a comic opera, and the ‘sketches’, which in in the spring of the previous year were being published piecemeal without a fee, were now becoming numerous and well-known enough to be published separately. A friend he’d recently met, the novelist William Ainsworth, found a publisher for him, Macrone, and yet another friend was to illustrate them, George Cruikshank. He was perhaps the best illustrator of his time, and the book was to become Sketches by Boz, published early the following year – 8 February 1836, the day after his 24th birthday.

What more is there to say about his annus mirabilis? To start with, he agreed to write for three more publishers, including Chapman and Hall – Dickens recognised Hall as the man who sold him a copy of The Monthly containing that first sketch of his – who would publish The Pickwick Papers, and Richard Bentley who wanted him not only to contribute to Bentley’s Miscellany but to promise him his next novel. And he signed a contract with another publisher for a children’s book…. The fees rose as the year progressed, and, as Tomalin ominously puts it, he was on good terms with them all ‘for the moment’. But it was to become be a source of disagreements later – as would the fact that in these early contracts Dickens sold the copyrights to his work. And meanwhile – a word I’m using a lot, I realise – he had married Catherine in April and, going by when their first son was born, she was pregnant immediately.

Something had to give. The children’s book was never written and Dickens had to extricate himself from the contract; the final story in the second volume of Sketches by Boz was a melodramatic, moralising mess; and The Village Coquette, his comic opera, was not at all up to his usual standard. This last was the astute view of the critic John Forster, and his sudden appearance in Dickens’ life was probably the best thing that ever happened to either of them. They were to become the very greatest of friends, and Tomalin devotes some pages in both Chapters 6 and 7 to the closeness of the friendship until the end of Dickens’ life. Forster had trained as a lawyer, and soon fulfilled a role which, as Tomalin points out, had not yet been invented: he became Dickens’ literary agent, albeit unpaid. As I might have mentioned before, Dickens was good at making friends.

Near the start of 1837, on 6 January, their first son was born. Otherwise the marriage wasn’t up to much. Catherine was amenable enough, and we’ve already had a riff from Tomalin about how she fitted Dickens’ literary template – she names a lot of characters from the novels – for submissive young wives who are an essential element in the hero’s domestic life. But for Dickens it was never enough, and he became much closer to her younger, livelier sister Mary – with whom, for instance, he spent the day while Catherine was in labour, buying pretty things for the house. Mary came to live with them for quite long periods in order to help out, and this was clearly to Dickens’ taste. Ok.

For the first ten months of the year Dickens had two projects running simultaneously: instalments of Pickwick for Chapman and Hall, and of Oliver Twist for Bentley. His work-rate was phenomenal, as he spent up to a fortnight on each per month, amongst his other duties. He only failed once, when he was reduced almost to a state of collapse by the death of – guess. It’s Mary, who became ill one evening and was dead the next day of an illness that was never undiagnosed. Dickens was able to take a ring from Mary’s finger, and wore it for the rest of his life Ok….

He was beginning to fall out with his publishers, as he realised that the deals he’d struck were making them much richer than him. Chapman and Hall seem to come off best: they often gave him bonuses amounting to large multiples of his original fees, whilst to Dickens Bentley was ‘the robber’. Forster had to work hard to get Bentley to change the original contracts: this is the time when he effectively became Dickens’ agent, business adviser and even proof-reader. He later stated proudly that he read all Dickens’ work before the rest of the world.

Forster knew a lot of people, and introduced Dickens to them. The famous actor Macready, very familiar to Dickens, became a great friend. Dickens became a member of the short-lived ‘Shakespeare Club’ – I don’t really know what that was – but, more importantly, met a lot of writers and artists. It seems that if you were famous in these fields in the 1830s, Dickens got to know you – Leigh Hunt, Talford, considered to be one of the most brilliant men of his time although he’s sunk without trace now – and plenty of others. He never forgot that it was Forster who provided the original introductions.

Pickwick was finished at the end of 1837, so he wasn’t writing two novels simultaneously now. He didn’t need to start the next serial straight away, so he took a well-deserved rest. Only joking. What he really did was edit someone’s memoirs (I forget whose) and produce another book while he carried on with Oliver Twist. Then he was back to the simultaneous production-line, finishing off Oliver as he began Nicholas Nickleby. The latter was soon being dramatised, and at a performance Dickens met a Mrs Ternan and her daughter Ellen…. Tomalin doesn’t mention either of them again during this chapter. Like a novelist, she’s just dropping in the name for now but we know it will crop up again.

A normal human being – in fact, a more much energetic one than most of us – would have either Dickens’ workload or his filled-up social calendar. He managed both. We get a paragraph or two about his new interest in mesmerism – thank you, John Elliotson, later Dickens’ family doctor. We get the arrangements Dickens made, bowing to the inevitable, to get regular payments to his parents – and, a few months later, his trip to Devon to arrange the rental and furnishing of a house for them near Exeter in a vain hope to keep his father out of harm’s way financially. At the end of the year he had dinner engagements almost every night during Christmas week, a New Year’s party at his own place followed by another joint celebration of his son’s second birthday and something else – it’s hard to keep track – in early January 1839.

Meanwhile…. While writing Nicholas Nickleby for Chapman and Hall he was having to work through his commitments with Bentley. Following a complaint-filled letter to Bentley he and Forster worked something out with him. He promised that the only writing he would do other than for Bentley was Nickleby, and he guaranteed to have his next novel ready for Bentley, the one he’d been contracted to write for some time, by January 1840. This was to be Barnaby Rudge. He soon reneged on this, agreeing to edit and contribute to a new weekly miscellany for Chapman and Hall to be called Master Humphrey’s Clock. But the big push during the summer months was to get Nickleby finished. He and Catherine rented houses, first in Richmond and then in Broadstairs (I think) so he could work quietly. Hah. He constantly invited ‘troops of friends’, as Tomalin puts it – and was it around now that he became godfather to one of Macready’s children? Whatever, Nickeleby did get finished, and the final issue was in October. Tomalin isn’t massively impressed with it, especially the episodic structure and the poorly-drawn good characters. She had been more impressed by Oliver Twist, except for the stereotyped characterisation of Nancy, some of whose worst lines she quotes. Fair enough.

Are we near the end of Part 1 yet? Not far, as it happens. Tomalin mentions the difficulties Dickens had with publishers in America, particularly concerning piracy and the non-existence of international copyright laws. By the end of the year they’d moved again, upgrading to 1 Devonshire Terrace. So the meteoric rise was unstoppable, yes? Not quite, as at the beginning of 1840 he only had two chapters of Barnaby Rudge to offer Bentley, who had expected the whole novel. Tomalin ends Part 1 with a sneak preview of the rest of the new decade, and it isn’t all good. In fact, some of it sounds like a list of mounting problems….

23 November
Part 2, Chapters 8-10, 1840-1844
The first major problem was the new miscellany. Dickens had wanted to relax a little, do some editing with a little writing on the side…. But, while his name helped to sell a huge number of issues at first, soon sales collapsed. He had to do exactly what he’d hoped to give up, beginning to write weekly instalments of a new novel he was literally making up as he was going along. This developed into The Old Curiosity Shop, and Tomalin is dismissive of it. Its episodic structure, which hadn’t mattered in Pickwick, does matter in a serious work. Often Dickens resorts to melodrama, the villain, Quilp, is out of a pantomime, and the plot doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. What saves it, and kept up sales of the magazine, is what he does with the character of little Nell. It was Forster who suggested that Dickens should kill her off, and it became the talking-point of London for weeks: grown men weeping, the works. It was agony for Dickens to write it – there are several letters in which he describes the difficulties – but he got there. And the end of the novel meant the end of the short-lived Master Humphrey’s Clock. Time to start Barnaby Rudge….

Social life carried on. There were new friends, such as Walter Landau and Thomas Carlyle (later he and Carlyle were sometimes referred to as the only two writers taking the plight of the poor seriously) and Tomalin shows us a different side to his social life with an episode with the 19-year-old Eleanor Picken, with whom he indulged in a kind of boyish, boisterous flirtation. On the pier he insisted on a melodramatic death-pact, pretending that they would let the tide rise to cover them. Her best silk dress was soaked to the knees – and in later years, after her marriage, he was always cold towards her. What? What? One of the reasons I want to read this is to get some insight into his relationship with women. I’m not sure I ever will. The next one – not that he ever went any further than admiring her legs, apparently – was Julia Fortescue, an actress later in Macready’s company. Details of her private life – she had been cited in a divorce case – meant she could never rise to the top as an actress, but Dickens invited her to play in his amateur productions throughout the 1840s.

Barnaby Rudge, which he was writing in 1841, was a failure. So it goes. Dickens was as popular as ever despite this, making a triumphant visit to Edinburgh… but he knew he couldn’t keep up this pace. His health was never good, and this was the year he had to have and operation for an anal fistula, whatever that is, without anaesthetic. He needed a rest, negotiated with Chapman and Hall for some leave, and decided that he and Catherine should go to America.

Tomalin spends most of Chapter 9 on the trip and its aftermath. Following a harrowingly bad crossing on one of the new paddle-steamers, his arrival was triumphant. Americans feted him as a fellow republican, and he was looking forward to a society without monarchs or an aristocratic ruling class, and the first city he visited, Boston, was all he had hoped for. In role as social reformer he visited prisons, made speeches that seemed to confirm him as an honorary American. ‘So far, so good’, writes Tomalin, and we think, ‘uh-oh.’ The chapter is titled ‘The conquest of America’, but soon that isn’t how it feels. Catherine was a much better companion than usual, perhaps because she wasn’t pregnant for a change, and he wasn’t always off with his male friends. But soon they both felt buffeted by the demands of celebrity life, and no other city on their itinerary – except possibly Cincinnati – matched the charm of Boston. Dickens’ first appeal for better copyright laws had been heard politely, but soon he was seen as grasping and lacking in taste. Newspapers that had celebrated his arrival began to find things about him – his vulgar manner, his flamboyant dress style – that they could criticise.

The dislike was mutual. American habits like spitting chewed tobacco out on to the floor revolted him and, at a different level, so did the existence of slavery. The itinerary was demanding, and Dickens didn’t feel the need to stick to it: when he reached the slave states he turned back after visiting just one city, Richmond. The graph of his admiration for America between January and June 1842 is a steady downward slope… which didn’t stop him meeting important literary figures. Washington Irving and Longfellow became friends, and he was already a fan of Poe and had exchanged letters with him. But near the end of the visit he described in a letter to Forster the boredom of yet another event, and how impossible it would be to live in America with the inescapable talk of ‘dollars’ and politics. There’s one sublime moment, at Niagara Falls, when Dickens imagines that the spirit of Mary Hogarth must have witnessed its awesome power. Tomalin is scathing about the idea of her hovering around the beauty spots of the world in the afterlife – but it’s a reminder of how she was the lost love of his life.

They returned to England, and the more equal relationship between him and Catherine was over. Dickens’ main homecoming celebration was a men-only party, and he later went for a men-only holiday to the South West. Catherine was soon pregnant again, but not quite yet…. Dickens asked for his letters back from friends, to add to his notes on his trip, and he used them as the basis for American Notes. It came out before the end of the year, and some saw it as a suicide note. Macaulay, who had offered to review it for the Edinburgh Review, changed his mind because he didn’t want to have to write a bad review, and the American papers held it up as proof of his small-minded vindictiveness. The New York Herald, once so admiring, saw it as typical Old World snobbery. What’s a man to do?

Why not write a novel containing a raft of anti-American features? He started on Martin Chuzzlewit straight afterwards. I can remember being struck by the scathing attacks on American newspapers and rampant, dishonest American capitalism. Tomalin is dismissive of the novel, finding it formulaic and full of unfeasible plot twists. I didn’t hate it when I read it three or four years ago, although I can agree with her that Pecksniff is the best thing about it. But I also liked the stricken conscience of the murderer who reminded me of the main character in Poe’s ‘The Tell-tale Heart’. As I wrote at the time, Poe admired a story that Dickens had written a couple of years before, and Poe’s tale and this part of Martin Chuzzlewit were both written in the same year, 1843.

And life carried on. Dickens’ father was being a pain again, writing cheques – Dickens tried to veto this by letting it be known that he wouldn’t honour them – and borrowing money. Yet when Dickens offered to employ one of his brothers as a secretary, his father vetoed the idea. Not gentlemanly enough, I guess. And he wasn’t in Devon any more. Too dull. What Dickens did – and we see this throughout his life – was to turn his attention away from his own family and towards one good cause after another. (I don’t mean that to sound as dismissive as it came out. Although there is something almost manic about the energy he expended, which some might say would have been more appropriately directed towards, say, his wife.) There was a family of girls fallen on hard times, the Eltons – the eldest remained a friend for years – that Dickens arranged an education for. And his friendship with ‘Miss Coutts’ – heiress, and owner of Coutts Bank – allowed him to make suggestions about supporting some ‘ragged schools’ he was interested in.

This was still 1843, and Dickens felt he needed a break, a proper one this time. He fancied taking the family abroad, to France, perhaps. But not just now, because there was yet another baby on the way, and A Christmas Carol to write. Dickens described its conception, of how he wrote it in his head on his nocturnal walks in London. It was, and remains, one of his best and best-loved works, and confirmed him as a leading writer on social issues. Carlyle was a great admirer of his – he and his wife were in his inner circle of friends – especially on the determination they shared to publicise the plight of the poor. (Tomalin suggests that when Engels singled out Carlyle for praise it was only because he hadn’t read Dickens.)

The Carol, of course, is a showcase for one of Dickens’ other favourite topics: the restorative effect of celebration and good fellowship. Christmas 1843, unsurprisingly, was as full of them as ever. But the book didn’t make him any real money. He had insisted on top-of-the-range production values, fancy bindings, the works… so, however well it sold, it didn’t bring the financial security he craved. Dickens never got into debt, but he always lived right up to his means, leaving nothing for emergencies. So he couldn’t actually afford the sabbatical he planned.

In 1844 he gave two public lectures, to sell-out audiences in Liverpool and Birmingham. In Liverpool he met the pianist Christiana Weller and, to all appearances, fell in love with her. He described his feelings to a friend, Thompson – who, encouraged by Dickens, wooed her and eventually married her. By then Dickens had cooled off and later, according to Tomalin, ‘turned against her and the whole Weller family’. No comment. And he still needed that break. He was coming to the end of Martin Chuzzlewit, and asked both his publishers for help. Chapman and Hall didn’t come up with anything, but Bradley and Evans did: they offered a loan, and the return was to be a proportion of his earnings for the next eight years. It was risky: they would only get a return if Dickens could sustain his creative output. Tomalin lets us know at this point that it was an one of the best investments they could possibly have made.

27 November
Chapters 11-14, 1844-1847
Almost as soon as Chuzzlewit was finished in June 1844, Dickens and the whole family travelled not to France but to Genoa. It was the first time in his adult life that he had no work to do, and he tried to be ‘lazy’. Inevitably he made friends there, and, just as inevitably, he remained in touch with some of them for years afterwards: the aristocratic Watsons, who owned Rochester Castle, and the De la Rues. (I’ll get back to them.) He seems to have been less sure of himself than previously, but eventually felt able to write a second Christmas story, The Chimes. According to Tomalin it’s more overtly political than the Carol, and nothing like as good. (Like most people, I haven’t read it.) He spent eight days in London to help in the process of getting it published, clearly liking the idea of spending time with friends, especially Forster.

In Genoa he discovered the joy of reading his work aloud to friends, and this is when he first had the idea of doing it for the general public. But Forster thought it wouldn’t be the right thing to make money in this way, and Dickens put off the idea until the late 1850s. Also in Genoa there was the extraordinary episode of his attempt to use mesmerism (or ‘magnetism’) to help a woman friend. She was Augusta de la Rue, English wife of a Swiss living there. What comes across is his confidence in his own ability, the apparent success of his efforts, at least in the short term, and the surprising level of intimacy that grew between them. Dickens kept up a close correspondence with both her and her husband for years after – and was resentful of Catherine’s jealousy which, apparently, he felt able to refer to eight years later.

From Genoa they went on a long trip, or trips, to Venice, Rome and other cities. From Naples Dickens organised guides to take them up Vesuvius, to the amazement of the locals, and got close enough to the crater to see inside and get his clothes singed. The episode became the high point in a travelogue Bradley and Evans published quickly for him afterwards, that made a bit of money for him. It wasn’t all tourism: as in America, he took a real interest in seeing inside the local prisons.

Chapter 12, covering the year or so following their return to England, is ‘Crisis’. Dickens had the idea of a weekly, to contain – wait for it – ‘a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home and Fireside.’ I’m beginning to think that Dickens is as wrong-headed about family as he is about women, considering it his job to present it not as it is but how he would like it to be. (Tomalin is often slyly dismissive of his treatment of his own family – and we know there’ll be worse to come later. At this time, Catherine’s sister Georgina came to live with them, and became the woman Dickens sought out for domestic companionship.) Thankfully, Forster persuaded him out of the idea of the new periodical, and Dickens threw himself into amateur dramatics instead, always put on to raise money for good causes like widows’ and orphans’ charities. He used a lot of professional actors, including Julia Fortescue – one of the many women he’d always been attracted to – who had appeared in a lot of adaptations of his novels. From contemporary comments, Tomalin gives us the impression that these productions were usually ‘dull’, but that audiences loved his performances as an actor.

But Mr Energetic needed another project. How about… a new campaigning newspaper to rival The Times? How hard could it be to be the editor alongside all the other calls on his time? It could be started up by the beginning of the next year, 1846, but first he needed to write a new Christmas story. The Cricket on the Hearth wasn’t even as good as The Chimes – but the Dickens brand meant that his Christmas stories always sold well. Fair enough. Meanwhile, Catherine was pregnant again, with Alfred. He would be their fourth son….

The new newspaper, The Daily News, started publication early in 1846. There had been a huge amount of investment in it, almost all at Dickens’ instigation – he was even able to find a role in it for his father, who made a success of it – but he soon realised how exhausting the job of editor could be. He was ‘tired to death and quite worn out’, and resigned. What to do? He made a proposal to Miss Coutts about a new project, a home for young prostitutes ready to seek a different way of life – Tomalin tells us she’ll return to that later – but he seems to have been unable to settle. How about another foreign trip, to Lausanne this time?

Tomalin wants to convey a definite sense of Dickens losing his way, and he suffered a great loss of confidence in Lausanne. The delay of his writing-box and equipment became the focus of what he later described to Forster as a near-breakdown. He was casting about for some kind of meaningful role, writing to one of his powerful friends in London about his becoming a magistrate. He considered changing his publisher, feeling that he had done Bradley and Evans a bad turn by getting them to invest so heavily in the News, which he expected to fail without him. (He was wrong.) But these things came to nothing, Forster persuading him against the change of publisher, and the crisis continued.

But at least the writing-box arrived, and he made a start on a novel, Dombey and Son. Before they even got the first instalment Bradley and Evans did a good job of publicising it with adverts and fliers in all the big cities. Meanwhile – we must be in late 1846 now – Dickens wondered about the next Christmas book. He still wasn’t feeling confident, but he discovered the joys of reading aloud again to the other expats. But, although Dombey was going well, the plight of little Paul Dombey was hard for him to cope with: much of the sadness of his childhood is like a preparation for what Dickens would do in David Copperfield. It was now November and time to head back. First, though, they were to stay for some months in Paris. (Dickens planned to spend a week or so in London in December. He liked those little solo jaunts.) He wrote to Macready, and Tomalin spends a page on a family he was helping: the Ternans, ‘and in another ten years they would become part of Dickens’ world.’ The youngest of three daughters, aged seven at this time, was ‘Nelly’. Ok.

In Paris, Dickens was highly impressed by Victor Hugo, whom he met, and carried on writing Dombey. Tomalin is full of praise for the early instalments, but she is scathing about large sections and she hates his presentation of the women in it. Dickens goes to absurd lengths with Edith, the wayward wife – to Dijon, if I remember rightly – only to have her tell the monstrous Carker that she has no intention of becoming his lover. This follows some of Dickens’ appalling moral apostrophising, in which he urges her not to throw away her reputation… and so on. Dickens always was hopeless with his women characters, and Tomalin pauses a while to describe how he simply has no way of dealing with the sexual side of relationships in his fiction. She mentions the one-dimensional Emily in David Copperfield, and Florence Dombey, whom he has to place in fairy-tale settings a long way from the novel’s darker realities. But… what Tomalin calls the brilliance of the chapters leading up to the death of Paul established this as a novel the public wanted to stay with, even though she considers the second half quite dreadful.

The chapter is ‘Dombey, with Interruptions’ and we find out what some of the interruptions were. There’s a lot of illness: Charley with scarlet fever, followed by some of the other children with something else; Fanny’s consumption a constant worry; and Dickens himself was attacked by a horse. But there were pleasanter distractions: theatricals, like those staged for the benefit of Leigh Hunt, and the germ of an idea for a new magazine. He gave lectures to workers’ education societies in Leeds and other cities, and had time to ‘impregnate’ Catherine again – interesting word Tomalin chooses – in 1847, despite a recent miscarriage. (Their youngest son was still only a year old.) Tomalin mentions the four ‘unwanted sons’ they would eventually have. Ok.

Tomalin steps out of the chronological straitjacket for Chapter 14 (‘A Home, 1847-1858’) describing his shelter for young prostitutes. He persuaded Miss Coutts that it would be a good idea and seems, to all intents and purposes, to have directed its running personally. Tomalin presents it to us as it apparently was: a genuine effort on one man’s part to make a small improvement in a system that was rotten to the core. It would have taken far more than one man to make any more than what Tomalin calls a ‘lop-sided’ contribution, but it’s just like him to spend huge amounts of energy doing something about a problem that others will merely talk about. She ends the chapter with the idea that ‘if there is providence in the fall of a sparrow, then these girls were his sparrows, and he wanted to make them fly, not fall.’ Yep.

3 December
Chapters 15-17
In Chapter 15, ‘A Personal History’, Tomalin makes a case for Forster’s interest in Dickens’ life-story leading almost seamlessly to the conception of David Copperfield. Forster had written a biography of Oliver Goldsmith and Dickens, in praising it, effectively nominated Forster as his biographer-in-waiting. Forster had spoken to Dilke, the man who, while visiting with John Dickens, had met Dickens as a child at the blacking factory. (Did I mention that story?) After ‘minutes’ of thought, Dickens began to tell Forster many of the details of that experience and others, including his father’s imprisonment for debt. Dickens looked, perhaps more deeply than he ever had before, into his own past. He became highly interested in the workings of memory and of how childhood experiences could form the man – for better or worse.

David Copperfield is not an autobiography. The elements from his own life that he uses are well known, but Tomalin insists that most of its elements are from Dickens’ imagination. What he does is to use what he knows about what it is like to be a sensitive child and, Tomalin insists, to take it somewhere entirely new. She doubts that Dickens was familiar with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and its first-person narrative beginning with the point of view of a child. But Forster had probably read it, and it was he who suggested the first person to Dickens. Tomalin is full of praise for the childhood sections, noting Dickens’ seamless mixing of past and present tenses to bring the reader close to David’s experiences. She praises his presentation of the effect on the sensitive child of those who love him, and those who don’t.

But she is also frank about its faults, notably – as ever, I’d say – the poorly-drawn young female characters. Emily is characterless after the childhood chapters, Dora – well, I’ve always hated Dora unreservedly – and Agnes, the ‘angel’, is one-dimensional. And, despite the models Dickens had for Martha the prostitute, he puts stock melodramatic phrases into her mouth that are from the same copy-book as Nancy’s. (There’s a kind of postscript about a different female character, Miss Mowcher the dwarf. The woman on whom she was clearly modelled threatened to take Dickens to court – so he mollified her by turning her from a grotesque little ‘hobgoblin’ in the service of Steerforth’s plans for seduction into a tireless seeker of the missing Emily later in the novel.)

The family spent time in a house on the Isle of Wight in 1849, but Dickens became ill and began to fear for his health. His sister Fanny had eventually died of ‘consumption of the lung’ not long before, in her 30s, and Dickens was always prone to terrible colds and other chest complaints. They moved to Broadstairs instead. You know where you are with Broadstairs.

In 1850 Dickens obviously decided he wasn’t busy enough – Copperfield, which would take until October to finish, was not giving him any trouble to write – and he acted on his plan for a new magazine. This became Household Words, a mixture of fiction and journalism. Mrs Gaskell was one of the first contributors, and her social concerns matched his. She was the first to deal with the plight of the industrial poor in fiction, and Dickens found her formidable. Tomalin juxtaposes some of his letters – to her and to a friend – to illustrate his highly Dickensian feelings for her. He wrote to her in that mock-flirtatious tone we’re familiar with, playing the gallant – but to a friend he says that ‘if I were Mr G. oh heaven how I would beat her!’ Dickens was a literary genius and was full of an extraordinary, energetic generosity – but there was a side to this man, now in his late 30s, that had never quite grown up.

While keeping David Copperfield going Dickens was also writing an article for Household Words every week or two – 100 in the first three years – on social matters and other issues of current concern. So there was plenty of time to mix with the people Tomalin calls ‘the great and the good’, and he met Wilkie Collins around now and they immediately liked each other. With Bulwer and others he created a new literary fund for writers, and financed it through theatrical productions.

There were ongoing family issues. Catherine, following her tenth and final pregnancy, was becoming ‘sickly’. Dickens went with her to Malvern to take the waters – he was also in constant fear of the consumption that killed Fanny – but he had to return when his father died. Then came the sudden and unexpected death of their youngest daughter, Dora (named after you-know-who). And none of this stopped Dickens carrying on. There was a Royal Command Performance for the ‘Literary Guild’ as it was called, and the young Queen Victoria was impressed. Dickens, never quite a gentleman – Wilkie Collins was envious at the way he was able to ignore such distinctions – kept company with aristocrats like the Duke of Devonshire, and he enjoyed his sojourns at the Rochester with the Watsons.

Tomalin begins Chapter 17 with a reminder, as if we need it, of what a phenomenon he was: ‘For the next five years Dickens packed so much activity into his life that it is hard to believe there is only one man writing novels, articles and letters…’ and so on, ending her seven-line opening sentence with ‘his customary twelve-mile walks’. When Household Words needed a boost, he wrote weekly instalments of Hard Times. And then she mentions the three great ‘condition of England’ novels he was to write in those five years, ‘extraordinary works of art’ whose features she lists in a sentence, this time, of eight lines.

The first is Bleak House and, as usual, Tomalin begins with what’s good about it: the present tense of the first two chapters (I have a memory of there being very few verbs at all to begin with, of whatever tense); the unflinching dissection of the law as Dickens had found it to be two decades or more previously; and the fragmentation of family life he describes, where characters are almost always either single or childless, and children have to fend for themselves. It has some of Dickens’ most memorable child workers, who seem to illustrate the line from The Old Curiosity Shop that ‘the poor have no childhood’. And there are no happy angels to sweeten the death of Joe, as there had been for Nancy in that early novel. But the novel is one of the first whodunits, complete with suspects and an archetypal detective based on one of those that Dickens knew.

Problems with Bleak House? Contemporary critics found that Dickens was trying to keep too many plates spinning at once, a ‘superabundance’ of characters and ideas and a plot that doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going. Tomalin knows what they mean, but considers the superabundance a sign of just how many issues Dickens wanted to cover. But there’s something more problematic about his use of real people as models for some of the characters: Skimpole was so clearly based on Leigh Hunt that his family were outraged – and Esther, in her selfless domestic heroism, is clearly based on what Dickens liked in women. The model for her was Esther Elton, the eldest of the family he had been helping for years, and he praised her for exactly these qualities. The other female characters, as usual, are underdrawn; even Lady Dedlock, who carries a lot of the later ‘whodunit’ plot, has no inner life.

It was an important turning-point in another way: Dickens, for the first time since since his American tour, was negotiating with American publishers. He would never be able to sort out the copyright issue – there was no formal agreement until after his death – but it was a beginning. And overall, his total income from sales reached £13,000. This is a staggering amount, equivalent to two or three million in modern terms, and Dickens never had money worries again.

But there were other things to worry about, and in the rest of Chapter 17 Tomalin is preparing us for his ‘metamorphosis into a different creature’. This clearly refers to his relationship with Catherine and other women; we’ve already had plenty of hints about his treatment of his wife, and the further preparation we get now is to do with the way he treated his children. He was unimpressed with Charley’s progress at Eton, where he’d been sent with some help from Miss Coutts. Dickens considered that the boy, now 16, needed to start on a career, but he eventually became disappointed in the lack of drive he expected from one of his own sons. Another son was allowed to seek a career in the army; two younger sons, Frank and Alfred, were sent for years to a school in Boulogne – from where they only came home for a single holiday each summer – which one of them later described in fairly wretched terms. Meanwhile Catherine, after giving birth ten times, was worn out. Tomalin’s use of the word ‘impregnated’ a chapter or so back was clearly a deliberate judgment on his lack of care for her.

This seems like a confirmation of the impression any reader inevitably receives about the flaw at the centre of Dickens’ character. I’ve been speaking to people about reading this book, and I always find myself pointing out the bizarre contrast between his extraordinary generosity and energy when dealing with good causes – individuals and families in need, and issues of social concern – whilst practically ignoring any of his own wife’s needs beyond the material and paying little attention to his own children. As yet another was born usually a son, he becomes more sarcastic about his feelings about them in his letters, or makes jokes about his astonishment at the number of them coming down the stairs to dinner.

I see it as a feature of his personality that he sustained himself by way of great floods of enthusiasm This year’s good cause? Check. The current novel (or magazine launch or whatever)? Check. The latest theatrical production? Check. I suspect the way he made friends was similar: he would have a current new friend who would be the centre of his attention for a while, before joining the ranks of all the others. And, of course, there are women. They might be short-lived crushes as with Eleanor Picken and her soaked dress or Christiana Weller, dropped unceremoniously after her marriage. Useful and engaging women like Miss Coutts and Julia Fortescue came into the inner circle and were kept in tow.

When enthusiasm faded, as it always did with Dickens, he liked either to drop things or let them fade into the background. But, of course, none of this works with a family. Sure, he loved Christmas and other family celebrations with them. The youngest son, Henry Fielding Dickens, was clever and funny. And Dickens always loved spending time with the babies, however irritated he might be by the general idea of yet another call on his attention. But, as the years of family life dragged on, he was stuck with Catherine and he was stuck with the all these mostly ordinary children who were constantly looking to him for advice and guidance.

What’s a man to do?

30 December
Chapters 18-19, 1853-1857 – to the end of Part 2
Tomalin was right when she told us at the start of Chapter 17 that it’s hard to believe that she’s only writing about one man at this time. Instead of a blow-by-blow summary of what he did in the three or four years covered in these chapters, why don’t I just give you an impression? And remember, he was doing all these things at the same time, which makes me begin to think that Dickens’ great genius was his ability to multi-task. (I’ll write things down as I remember them.)

He wrote Little Dorrit which, according to Tomalin, didn’t present him with major difficulties. The impetus behind the writing of it was his exasperation at the way the middle and upper classes could live as though the London underclass simply did not exist, and his working title for some months was the sarcastic-sounding ‘Nobody’s Fault’. (Did he keep that as a subtitle? I should look it up.) He’d made contact with his first love, Maria Beadnell, began a secret correspondence with her, and had looked forward to meeting her. He was mortified by the way she had put on weight and talked endlessly, and he quickly ended the budding re-acquaintance. She became the ludicrous Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, an even meaner portrait than Skimpole in Bleak House. Nasty man.

He took his family to live in Paris for some months and Boulogne for some more months, so that they spent more time in France than in England in, I think, 1856. Inevitably Dickens travelled back to London every few weeks for a long visit and a continuation of the bachelor existence he enjoyed so much. But one of the things he liked about France was the more open-minded attitude to what might be written about in fiction. He wrote more than once about the way English novelists were bound by such strict rules of propriety it was impossible to write realistically about the real drives and experiences that form the emotional development and relationships of young men.

He heard that a house in Kent was up for sale, and it turned out to be Gad’s Hill, the very house he’d seen as a child and fantasised as a future place to live. He bought it, had it brought up to his exacting standards, moved himself and the family in, had even more extensive work done on the water supply – workmen had to drill over 200 feet down to find a spring – and got on with the rest of his life. Some of this involved his customary light-touch management of his children, with Charley more or less making his way, some of the boys away in Boulogne and the tenth and last child, ‘Florn’, delighting him and everyone else. Georgina, now in her late 20s, was the real mistress of the family, and…

…and, increasingly, Dickens became dissatisfied with his marriage. Over time, according to letters Tomalin has selected for us, we get a picture of his growing frankness about their incompatibility, the tragedy – I think he uses the word – of her path ever having crossed his. There’s a growing note of exasperation with her – he tells her he expects her to write to the De la Rues for her past behaviour – and of self-pity. One year there’s a mention of Catherine’s birthday – the one and only time, Tomalin tells us, that Dickens ever mentions her birthday in over twenty years of letter-writing. We’ve seen this disaffection coming, of course. Tomalin has been signalling it for some chapters now, and we haven’t forgotten that even before the marriage she refers to it as the biggest mistake of his life. She also tells us that they won’t be together for the next one…. This is what Tomalin prepared us for at the end of Chapter 17, his ‘metamorphosis into a different creature.’ It isn’t pretty.

And we haven’t seen anything yet. One of his friends had died, so he put together a huge theatrical production to raise money for the widow and family. There’s a well-received (although, Tomalin lets us know, sentimental and preposterously plotted) drama of redemptive heroism, followed by a farce. Dickens himself wrote it, managed the construction of a temporary mini-theatre attached to the house at Gad’s Hill, dragooned all his artist friends as set designers… and so on, a process that took ‘the best part of ten weeks’. It was an amateur production, but critics were invited and described Dickens’ performance as equalling that of any top professional. Ok. And… when the play was to be performed in bigger venues he needed professionals. Enter, again, Mrs Ternan and her daughters Mary and Ellen. Mary cried real tears opposite Dickens as his character died valiantly, and was inconsolable during the interval… and so on.

Meanwhile he was also keeping up with his other good works. He took a single mother under his wing, but the Home, which he was expanding, only took childless women. (He describes the expansion in a letter to Miss Coutts, in that not-quite joking way of his, telling her it must be good because it’s to his design. You can see Tomalin going off this man more and more as she writes about him.) Other good works: the Literary Guild, and attempts to reform of the one already in place; satirical essays in Household Words – I’d momentarily forgotten about that little project – about the inefficiencies of government, the core of his portrayal of the ‘Circumlocution Office’ in Little Dorrit. (Another good work: he published the first two of the three stories by George Eliot that became Scenes of Clerical Life.)

Next. Friendships, like Wilkie Collins, who he saw a lot of in Paris, and Forster, who shocked Dickens by announcing that he was going to be married at the age of 40. Tomalin suggests that Dickens was mortified by the idea that he would have to share his best friend…. It goes with his general dissatisfactions with the world. In one letter he regrets that he hasn’t made more friends – I’m not making this up – and often sounds vaguely depressed about his lot. He recognises his own need for projects to fill his mind, beats himself up when what he writes seems trivial. So… projects it is, like short lecture tours to cities in the north of England

I will have missed things out, but you get the picture. He was a dynamo in his 20s and, in his 40s, he was still as full of restless energy as ever. He seemed unable to sit still except for the six hours devoted to writing each day, usually from 8.00 a.m. until 2.00. He was still going for his 12-mile walks, still putting aside days and weeks of me-time with his male friends, on short trips or longer holidays. He was earning fortunes from his books but, somehow, it was never enough… and Tomalin ends Part 2 with his suggestion in a letter to Forster that his old idea of a series of public readings would help him pay for Gad’s Hill. Maybe the Dickens of the readings is part of the changed persona Tomalin has been hinting at. Except… earlier in the same letter we’ve had that grating note of complaining self-pity that’s becoming more and more familiar. Maybe this is the different creature we’ve heard about.

31 December
Part 3, Chapters 20 and 21, 1857-1861
Ah. The new creature, certainly at first, is fairly monstrous. Tomalin begins Part 3 with a résumé of the next couple of years of his life, and it’s a catalogue of self-serving decisions, fallings-out, and general nastiness towards Catherine. At one stage a bit further on she suggests that as onlookers we might sometimes want to avert our gaze, and I know what she means. I stopped reading for a few weeks some chapters back when his worst fault was his carelessness about the wishes of others, and it’s a lot worse now. It isn’t that I’ve any problem with his insistence that his marriage to Catherine is unsustainable. It’s the lies – about her and about the part he himself played in the breakdown – that are hard to take. Some of the things he wrote and did were frankly unforgivable, as though his lifelong habit of taking charge and making decisions mutated into a ghastly desire to control.

The main driver of the crisis, aside from the sure knowledge that his marriage to Catherine was always a mistake, was Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan. She was eighteen now, and Dickens thought that he could get her. Having already told some of his friends about his unhappiness with Catherine, he decided that he needed to make the next step. He started to sleep in a separate bed, let the family know that the marriage was effectively over, and risked everything on the idea, to use Tomalin’s word, of ‘seducing’ Nelly. There were precedents for his attempt, other men who seemed to be able to persuade women to be their mistresses, even live together like George Eliot and George Lewes. But he didn’t appreciate the complications, and why a woman might be reluctant. Julia Fortescue, the crush of his from way back, was never able to work as a respectable actress because of her long-term relationship with whoever it was; George Eliot was never a part of London society, and was living in Germany at this time… and so on. Nelly’s mother no doubt knew all about this, and had inculcated a deep-rooted sense of proper behaviour in her three daughters. Dickens had to be content with being a friend and benefactor, because Nelly wasn’t going to give in.

But he had the bit between his teeth now, and was determined to uncouple from Catherine. He went public, writing an open letter to various publications about his marriage, how it had been unhappy for years, how – get this – she was the one who thought a separation would be a good thing. This was what he was like now, using his public persona to make a plausible case with himself in the role of regretful, caring husband. It was all a sham, of course, and some publications refused to print the letter. Punch was one of them, and Dickens went about severing all links – which was quite a big step: the publishers of Punch were his own, Bradley and Evans, who also published Household Words. This wasn’t the only falling-out, and some friendships didn’t survive. Like Thackeray, for instance: any suggestion by anybody that things might not have been quite as presented by Dickens would be met by a vehement public response from him….

And so on. Later there was another letter, in which Dickens seems to have set out to destroy Catherine: she was mentally unstable, she was disliked by her own children, she always took a back seat as her sister Georgina in effect became their real mother. These were all lies, but it is as though Dickens believed in the truth of them. As before, friendships and business relationships were sacrificed if he detected any suggestion from anyone of unfairness on his part.

Every aspect of his life was put under strain. His health suffered, so that he became subject to rheumatic pain and swollen feet that prevented him from taking his long walks. He aged visibly through the second half of his forties, so that people who met him after a gap were often surprised by the grizzled, withered face of a man they remembered as someone who would light up a room. And some of his projects fell away. Household Words came to an end after his fall-out with the publishers. He gave up his directorship of the Home and, after stumbling on without him for a further two or three years, it was disbanded. And there were no more amateur dramatics, partly because the strong family base they were built on no longer existed.

In fact, the family was torn to pieces. In separating from Catherine he severed all links with her family, the Hogarths, characterising her mother as an evil witch. He put pressure on his children to choose to live with him, and was mortified when Charley, in what Tomalin calls his finest hour, decided to live with her. Georgina was living as his housekeeper now and, despite there never having been any sexual relationship between them, he had to defend the arrangement in public. There’s a certain irony, which Tomalin can’t resist pointing out, that he was also often forced to make a public defence of Nelly Ternan. He would never mention by name but, despite his own best efforts, he could truly attest to her ‘innocence’ of any wrong-doing.

With his life in such a mess he fell apart, stopped working, became a shadow of his former creative self. Right? Wrong, obviously. He set up a new weekly periodical of which he was proprietor, editor and contributor, All the Year Round. (He had wanted to use the word Household in the title again, but was advised that it would be seen as inappropriate given his own well-known circumstances.) One of the things it needed to kick-start its circulation figures was a new novel, and this became A Tale of Two Cities. Later he wrote Great Expectations, which Tomalin describes as one of his greatest novels. (I’d describe it as my own favourite, the one I consider to be his most emotionally and artistically mature.) So he was never idle… and his health had recovered by now, so he could take up his walking again. And he began the public readings which became a central feature of his later years, criss-crossing the country by train.

Ok. But his emotional life was still a mess. He needed what Tomalin calls the ‘relief’ that only a sexual relationship could provide, and she points to circumstantial evidence that he contracted gonorrhoea to suggest that he went with prostitutes. He hadn’t given up on Nelly Ternan, and according to his accounts at Coutt’s Bank there seem to have been a lot of outgoings on her behalf. He set her up with one of her sisters in a house in the centre of London, and even toyed with the idea of leaving his own house so they could rent it. He was dissuaded from this – but the fact that he could even think about it suggests that he wasn’t thinking very carefully about how things would look… although even he thought to keep it a secret that he was paying their rent.

What else in these chapters? Tomalin lets us know there were still friends that Dickens hadn’t fallen out with. Forster, obviously and his tireless editor Wills… but others as well. One, Charles Kent, was ‘promoted’ into the inner circle because of his staunch support; Macready ‘delighted’ Dickens by re-marrying, this time to a woman young enough to be his granddaughter: it’s another welcome precedent. But Dickens was subject to huge swings of mood, and was capable of what seems like brutality – a word Tomalin uses to describe his decision not to allow Catherine to attend their daughter Katey’s wedding. By contrast, Charley’s marriage – to Bessie Evans, the daughter of the publisher he’d excommunicated from his circle – outraged him. I’m starting to like Charley.

There’s an unexpected insight, given by Dostoevsky of all people. He reports a conversation in which Dickens claimed that all his evil characters were aspects of himself, and that all his good ones were ‘what he wanted to have been’. He describes the ‘two people’ Dickens felt he had inside him, and… and what? Maybe it begins to account for some of the contradictions. This man, who must have been infuriating to live with long before the rifts he opened in his family, revealed to Dostoevsky ‘an awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour.’ I should think so.

2 January 2013
Chapters 22-23, 1862-1865
Is it my imagination, or is Tomalin speeding through the years a lot faster now? Whatever, she confirms the impression I’ve been getting that Dickens wasn’t doing as much now because, as he entered his 50s, he had less energy than he used to. Sometimes his health let him down, particularly the gouty foot that sometimes swelled so much he had to have a special boot made. At one point Tomalin contrasts the difference between Dickens on his 50th birthday and what he had been doing on his 40th. This was in 1862, his least creative year since he started writing. He was keeping going with his Uncommercial Traveller pieces, and (I think) he was starting on his Mrs Lirriper stories….

But he had other things on his mind. Most of Chapter 22 is given over to the question of whether Nelly Ternan finally became his lover at this time. Tomalin rehearses her own theory in The Invisible Woman – about to be released as a film – that Ternan became pregnant by him, explaining why she spent three years in France. She quotes other biographers and members of Dickens’ own family, and I’m happy to swallow the mass of circumstantial evidence she offers, including the short stories he wrote around this time featuring the deaths of children, and a man who travels to France and adopts a little girl…. Their child was a boy, but sickly; Tomalin thinks he was born early in 1863 and died in the middle of 1865. The experience might, or might not – there are a lot of ‘could haves’ in this chapter – have put a strain on the relationship. The incident of the Staplehurst rail crash, when Dickens was travelling back with her from France, ‘might’ offer an insight: Ternan, thinking they were about to die, suggested they hold hands ‘as friends’ – as though, Tomalin suggests, this might not be the expected thing at that particular time. I always hate it when biographers do that.

In Chapter 23 Tomalin backtracks to cover what else was happening in the same period. There were a lot of deaths – family members, friends, celebs like Thackeray – and Dickens’ own uncertain health. Another of his brothers died of the same ‘tuberculosis of the lung’ that had killed his sister Fanny… and for the first time, Dickens had a clause written into his contract with Chapman and Hall of what was to be done in the event of his death before completing his next project. We know what he didn’t in 1863, which is the point we’ve reached, that he only had seven more years to live. The project was to be his last major work, Our Mutual Friend, and he wrote it in the old 20-part serial format, finishing in 1865.

Tomalin is almost as complimentary about the book as she was about Great Expectations. I re-read it recently, and I’d say I agree both with what she admires and doesn’t admire. Reading her description of its qualities, and of the way Dickens was able to create, for instance, a more fully-rounded villain in Headstone than any he’d managed before, makes me wonder what he might have achieved if he’d put all his remaining energies into another couple of late novels. Or if he’d lived beyond the age of 58….

But I’m in danger of getting lost in an alternative history, like the world of Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration in which the works of Mozart’s old age are his masterpieces. What really happened – to Dickens, not Mozart – was that he decided that the public readings were the thing. Tomalin makes a case for a certain neediness on his part. She quotes letters in which he describes the friendship, even love, that he feels audiences giving him – something he didn’t get from the publication of Our Mutual Friend, whose print-run halved between the first instalment and the last. He didn’t get as much money from writing either: his contract paid him something like £6,000 for the novel – but he could make that in a few days of readings. (I worked out that his earnings, in real terms, were greater than the those of the Premiership football players of today. Over £1,000 for a single night’s work? That’s something like £200,000 in today’s terms.)

By this time Dickens was paying for everything for Nelly, her sisters and her mother. Tomalin speculates about how he managed to prevent any kind of scandal, especially when the Ternans were close to several other families of his acquaintance like the Forsters, the Trollopes and the Willses. If any of them knew anything they kept it quiet… but that wasn’t a great help to Nelly. Georgina, who had suffered a (probably psychosomatic) illness when it seemed possible that Nelly might supplant her in some way, still played a central role in Dickens’ life. Tomalin makes it clear that whatever her ‘mysterious’ existence was during these years – she likes the idea of her mystery and ‘invisibility’, as we know – it can’t have been terribly satisfying for her. (One of her sisters was becoming more sorted out at this time. Fanny Ternan was close to the Trollope family, and 50-something Thomas proposed marriage to her. And she’d written a novel, which Dickens published, having paid a very generous fee to her, through Household Words. Tomalin decides his generosity had a lot to do with his wish to keep her sweet regarding the problematic circumstances of her younger sister’s life.)

So, what are we getting from Dickens in his early 50s? Still, for now, the creative genius he always was: Tomalin’s list of the characters and themes in Our Mutual Friend are a reminder of that, but she lets us know he would never write anything so substantial after he finished it in 1865. He was seeking something new, and had a long-term plan to return to the US for a tour of readings. The Civil War was preventing it, and he contemplated, then abandoned, the idea of a tour of Australia instead. And he continued writing for All the Year Round, many of his articles, like Our Mutual Friend, offering critiques of middle class society as he saw it. He might not be the man he was but, despite the ever-worsening state of his gouty foot, he’s still always on the move. There were ‘intimations of mortality’ with the death of Mrs Gaskell, only two years older than Dickens himself, and he was ‘assailed’ by health problems. Sometimes, as described by an observer at the time, he would briefly leave a room looking drawn with pain but return immediately, as full of life and energy as ever. It was as though he’d decided he could beat ill-health through sheer force of will, still determined to remain ‘the Inimitable’. Well, maybe.

6 January
Chapters 24-27 – 1865-1870 and beyond
I started writing this nearly two months ago – it isn’t the only book I’ve been reading – with ‘I’m loving this.’ It’s hard to love these final chapters and, something that’s been increasingly true for a long time, hard to love Dickens himself. From the start there’s been that nagging doubt about him: his extraordinary energy and generosity are aspects of his egotism, an arrogant certainty of his own popularity and importance; other aspects of this look like the behaviour of a domineering control-freak. In these chapters, more than ever before, Tomalin focuses on Dickens’ less attractive side. By the time we’ve reached the last three or four pages we have his daughter Katey’s account, published decades after his death. She describes how much she loved him, how ‘wonderful’ he could be – and what a terrible husband and father he was. And from the drip-drip of evidence Tomalin has been presenting us with before this, we know exactly what she means.

But I need to rewind. In 1866 William Dolby became the latest of Dickens’ long line of fixers – the last, in fact, because he stayed with him as his tour manager until Dickens’ death. As with the others, he loved his new boss, always called him ‘the Chief’, and… and Tomalin does that thing where she takes us through an aspect of Dickens’ life – in this case, his gruelling series of reading tours – in a few introductory paragraphs: England in 1866, England and Ireland in 1867, the US late in the same year until April 1868… and so on. Dickens had been adapting and gutting five of his most popular novels for some time now, and he offered highlights from Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit (the Mrs Gamp sections), Dombey and Son (up to and including the death of Paul Dombey) and David Copperfield.

With Dolby’s help – and Forster’s, and Wills’, and Georgina’s, and Nelly’s – he kept what Tomalin calls a tight grip on everything that mattered to him. A lot of the information about 1867 comes from a diary he lost on the US tour, and it shows how much time he spent with Nelly. After a temporary place (‘tem’ in the diary) they moved to Peckham, handy for its proximity to the new railway station, under assumed names. In between tours, and until the end of his life, he lived three lives: with Nelly in Peckham, as a kind of local squire offering treats and events at Gad’s Hill, and his bachelor existence in London for the male company he loved – and, inevitably, for work. His writing, according to Tomalin, reveals his ‘diminishing powers’, and she describes the poorly plotted and/or sentimental themes of most of the short fiction. But, as we know, that’s not what he was most interested in now.

He sent Dolby over to the US in the summer of 1867 to test the waters for his proposed tour. Yep, fine. Dickens would be able to stay with the Field family in Boston… but would Nelly be able to join him there? (He wouldn’t know until he got there. No chance.) There was a huge and vulgar-sounding banquet put on in London before his departure, to which all the A-list celebrities and top politicians were invited, and politely refused. Even Forster, who hated the arrangements, managed to be too ill to attend. I’m guessing that Tomalin tells us all this as part of a bigger project of adjusting our view of Dickens: many of his judgments at this time, from the editing of his own output for maximum sensational effect for the readings, to the awful short stories, to the popular but down-market banquet show him Disneyfying himself, sacrificing taste for easy popularity. (Tomalin doesn’t use the word, but you know what I mean.)

The American tour was everything Dickens’ first trip in the 1840s wasn’t. The first trip saw Dickens and his American hosts becoming more and more disaffected with each other, whereas on the reading tour he became more and more lionised. Despite a head-cold that he called ‘American catarrh’ that stayed with him for almost the whole trip – several months – and lameness that often required him to be helped on and off the stage, he managed 76 readings, all of which were hugely over-subscribed. He slept badly, ate badly – his description of his diet in a typical 24-hour period shows how he survived more on alcohol than on anything more solid – and the laudanum he took caused constipation that worsened his piles. He pretended that none of it mattered. By the time of his farewell banquet he was promising to add a foreword (or whatever) to ‘both his books about America’ – Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – explaining how close he now felt to the United States.

On his return he did one of his disappearing acts, and spent a week in and around Peckham. He hadn’t seen Nelly for months, and he far preferred time spent with her than with his family, who seemed to bring him only headaches. Charley was bankrupt. Plorn, a low-achieving boy of sixteen, was packed off to help his brother Alfred on a sheep-farm in Australia. (Tomalin makes much of the heart-rending departure from Southampton, as told by Henry. Dickens himself did not accompany the boy. Hiss, boo.) Fred, Dickens’ brother, the one he had effectively cut off after several financial failures years before, died in poverty in Scotland. Dickens had no intention of attending the funeral: as Tomalin reminds us, once he’d cut you off, he never brought you back into the fold. Only Henry, the super-bright eighth child, did well, although he had to persuade his father to let him try for Cambridge. He became a highly successful barrister. (Charley was offered a job at All the Year Round, supplanting a man who had worked there for something like 19 years. Dickens might have been Mr Generous to his friends, but otherwise… my God.)

Dickens was now rid of most of his children so, as the title of Chapter 25 has it, ‘Things look like work again.’ In other words he could get on more or less without distractions not of his own choosing. He toured England and Ireland in early 1869, but suffered a mild stroke in April. So he gave up and went home…. As if. What he did, after (I think) a day’s rest, was to carry on, until his doctor forced him to give up, preferably for good. He didn’t tour during the summer, but otherwise he carried on as though there was nothing wrong. In London he started his long walks again, often to the East End, and once he took friends to visit an opium den. He came across a doctor and some underpaid nurses routinely saving the lives of orphans, and wrote about it in All the Year Round. At Gad’s Hill he invited several sets of guests, including the Fields from America, and gave them guided tours of the area, dismissing the verger in Rochester Cathedral and giving his own version of its history. Meanwhile he continued making expensive improvements to the house as a kind of hostage to fortune….

And he seemed to be drinking himself half to death. He tells one story against himself concerning an incident at the Russells’. Knowing them to be near-abstainers, he took his own bottles of spirits – which the valet unpacked and set out for him. How the Russells laughed, as had the bottles brought to him at the end of the evening. Tomalin remarks on his near-alcoholism, as confirmed later by the amount of wine and spirits shifted at Gad’s Hill each month. It’s a bit sad, like so much at this end of the biography. He begins a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is let down by the original illustrator, continues the ‘slow but steady change’ – clearly not in the right direction – that Dolby remarks on. In a letter Dickens describes the foreign trips he’s planning, but he’s not fooling anybody with his resolution to cross all the mountain passes of the Alps, visit Australia…. He complains about a new book describing Byron from the point of view of his wife, which gives Tomalin the chance to make a little in-joke: maybe he feared a similar book about his own marriage appearing in the future. And he is so ill he has to spend Christmas Day in bed.

And so we come to Chapter 26, 1870. Despite a farewell tour the previous year the readings continued with a new attraction: Oliver Twist and the death of Sikes. He had debilitating gout in his right thumb, couldn’t see properly anything on his right side, felt his pulse racing as he read, was now frankly ‘lame’ from the gout…. Obviously, he pretended none of it is happening, and contemporary reviews heaped praise on the readings. He was invited to visit the Queen, with whom protocol demanded that he remain standing, and was polite about her book about her visits to Scotland, which he’d earlier described as ‘preposterous’. And on 15th March he gave his final reading.

By now I was wondering how much longer this was going to go on, as March turns to April, to May…. But Tomalin decides that what we need, among the health issues, is a recap of his poor treatment of his family. He is only kind to one of his children, Charley, and she speculates that it must be to do with a sentimental attachment to his first son, born at the height of his powers and popularity. Other sons are cast adrift, like the two in Australia, or dead like the one who went to sea so young. (Did I mention him?) She decides to be shocked by a suggestion in one of his letters concerning the debt-ridden Sydney: ‘I begin to wish that he were honestly dead.’ Bless.

But, as the clock ticked, he continued to live his three separate lives – and continued writing Edwin Drood. Tomalin jogs through a critique of it, and it’s clearly no unfinished masterpiece…. But as a ‘last defiant act of creation’ she is astonished that it was produced at all by a man who was clearly dying. And we reach the end of May, the beginning of June….

He died as you would expect, having made a rail journey to sort out some housekeeping money for Nelly. There’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the story of his dying at Gad’s Hill might have been concocted for the sake of his reputation (and Nelly’s), that really he died in the house in Peckham and had to be secreted into Gad’s Hill. Well, maybe. But it hardly seems to matter. There’s a fairly brief description of the burial arrangements, which went through three versions (local churchyard, Rochester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey) and of the quiet funeral he had always insisted on. Thousands visited the coffin, its lid left visible for two days five feet below the floor of the abbey. Tomalin ends the biographical chapters with a reminder of his stature: ‘He was, and continues to be, a national treasure… and he continues to be read all over the world.’

And, except for a kind of epilogue, that’s it. The epilogue is Chapter 27, which lets us know what happened to his friends and family, and to his reputation, in the decades following his death. I find it hard to be terribly interested beyond the biography written by Forster in three volumes during the 1870s – mentioning nothing, of course, about his life with Nelly – and some other versions that came later. Nelly ‘reinvented’ herself, subtracting twelve years from her age and marrying an older man. She kept up the pretence for the rest of her life, and Tomalin can’t resist a suggestion that we all know who taught her the art of deception…. Katey’s version – as told to a friend, Gladys Storey – is the one I’ve already mentioned, and the most interesting: Tomalin wants to remind us of how he seemed frankly incapable of doing the right thing for any of his family. And crucially, according to her, he never understood women.

But Tomalin doesn’t end there. There’s a half-page eulogy to remind us of his extraordinary achievements – ‘he left a trail like a meteor’ – and a final glimpse of the ‘great, hard-working writer’ at his desk. After long hours of writing he would call for a bucket of cold water and ‘put his head into it, and his hands. Then he would dry his head with a towel, and go on writing.’


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