Dickens at 200

A life in letters.

Today, it is 200 years since Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea to John and Elizabeth Dickens. The second of their eight children, Charles would go on to become not merely a novelist but the paradigmatic Victorian man of letters - journalist, essayist and prolific correspondent as well as novelistof his day.

As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, author of Becoming Dickens, noted in an essay in the New Statesman in October, Dickens allows himself cameo roles in his novels, but without their turning into autobiography:

The best-known example is David Copperfield, whose initials reflect Dickens's in reverse, like somebody looking into a mirror, and who, over the course of the novel, encounters a mad second-hand clothes dealer named Charley, an ineffectual flute-playing schoolteacher, also named Charley, and Mr Dick, who is writing a "memorial" of Charles I. Similarly, A Tale of Two Cities revolves around physical doubles whom Dickens originally wanted to call Charles Darnay and Dick Carton, so that even their initials would reflect each other.

Dickens's "relationship" with his characters was also noted by Dostoevsky, as A N Wilson observed in a joint review for the NS of Douglas-Fairhurst's book and Claire Tomalin's biography:

"The person the writer sees most of is himself," the Russian wrote. "There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters . . ."

The Dickens bicentenary has garnered truly international attention. Here are just a few of the events and publications commemorating the man and his accomplishments:

  • The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall visit the Charles Dickens Museum and attend wreath laying Ceremony at Westminster Abbey which features readings from Ralph Fiennes & Claire Tomalin
  • The British Council's 24 hour Global Dickens Read-a-thon will take place in 24 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe beginning in Australia with a reading from Dombey and Son.
  • The BFI Southbank hosts the London leg of the Global Dickens Read-a-thon.
  • Dickens in London, an innovative cross-platform project, transmitted on Radio 4 and online throughout the week of the bicentenary

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers will be publishing The Library of a Dickensian, a collection of Dickens material that will be offered for sale in this bicentennial year. Items include first editions of Dickens's novels, letters, manuscripts and portraits of the novelist. The full catalogue can be viewed online here.

Charles Dickens - A life in letters

1812 Born to John and Elizabeth Dickens
1827 Works as the clerk to an attorney
1834 Begins using the pseudonym "Boz"
1836 The first chapters of The Pickwick Papers are published. Marries Catherine Hogarth
1837 The first of his ten children, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, is born
1839 His daughter, Kate, is born
1842 Charles and Catherine travel to America
1846 The Dickens family travels to Switzerland
1853 Dickens gives his first public reading
1856 Dickens works with Wilkie Collins on The Frozen Deep
1857 Hans Christian Anderson is entertained at Gad's Hill Place, Dickens's country home in Kent
1858 Dickens separates from Catherine
1869 Dickens discontinues public readings. Begins writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood
1870 Dickens gives his final public reading, and dies at Gad's Hill Place on 9 June

The novels

The Pickwick Papers (1836)

Oliver Twist (1837)

Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843)

Dombey and Son (1846)

David Copperfield (1849)

Bleak House (1852)

Hard Times (1854)

Little Dorrit (1855)

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Great Expectations (1860)

Our Mutual Friend (1864)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser