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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism