Becoming Dickens: the Invention of a Novelist / Charles Dickens: a Life

Why Dickens devoted his life to writing stories.

Becoming Dickens: the Invention of a Novelist
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Harvard University Press, 400pp, £20

Charles Dickens: a Life
Claire Tomalin
Viking, 576pp, £30

Charles Dickens was born on Friday 7 February 1812. Stand by for an avalanche of Dickens books to mark the bicentenary, but this month two very different publishers, Harvard University Press and Viking, have beaten the rush with two strikingly different biographies.

Yet is there room for still more reflection on Dickens? It is only two years since Michael Slater's sober, magisterial biography appeared, the fruit of a lifetime's research, drawing richly on the 12 volumes of the British Academy-Pilgrim Trust edition of the Letters. Many of us already have other lives of Dickens on our shelves, including Peter Ackroyd's frothing, thousand-page extravaganza and Claire Tomalin'sfascinating exposure of the novelist's affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman. Few who love Dickens would want to be without the Life by his old friend John Forster. And there are certain classic critical studies, such as that by G K Chesterton (1906) or Humphry House's superb The Dickens World (1941), which seem as you read them to "say it all". Finishing such books, we ask why we should need more.

There are many answers, for those of us - surely most literate anglophones - who regard Dickens, for all his glaringly obvious faults, as the greatest novelist in our language. The young Henry James, who met Dickens in 1867 as he was making his own stately progress towards a career as a very different variety of novelist, observed: "It is one of the chief conditions of his genius not to see beneath the surface of things." R W Buss's unfinished 1875 oil painting of Dickens, sitting at his desk as a vast cloud of his sketches of characters floats out of his imagination, reinforces the Jamesian view: Mrs Gamp, Dick Swiveller and Mr F's Aunt are all memorable and amusing precisely because, like figures in a pantomime, they apparently have no "depth". They dance on, they say their catchphrases, we laugh, and then it is time for the next "turn".

Yet, even in these cases, when they have floated out of Dickens's dream and into our heads, we discover that it is the Jamesian view that is "superficial". Whether it is Jenny Wren the dolls' dressmaker caring for her drunken father, or Pip surveying his lost soul through the prism of a sort of fairy-tale version of his childhood, or David Copperfield undergoing the double trauma of losing his mother through her second marriage and losing her again through her death, we feel that Dickens saw, and felt, and intuited beneath the surface of things very deeply.

As we go on rereading him beside the other great novelists, we feel that, in spite of some extraordinary lacunae (his inability to write about sex, his failure to depict "grown-up" women except as comedy turns or caricatures), he plumbs depths as profound as Proust, and paints a canvas as seething with insoluble metaphysical anxiety and mystery as his worshipper Dostoevsky. In fact, to be soaked in Dickens is an experience more like undergoing analysis than being addicted to the panto.

An inescapable question for all of us who regard him as the fountain of an unparalleled body of work is this: where does it all come from? Virginia Woolf, in a memorable essay written in 1939, pondered Dickens's need to write all this stuff, and felt that this most elemental fact about him, the writing life, was what was most often neglected by biographers. "Why did Dickens spend his entire life writ-ing stories?" Woolf wondered. "What was his conception?"

The commendable thing about these two excellent books - one by a former literary editor of this magazine and one by a young academic - is that they keep this question central to their concerns. The young academic quotes with approval a fine sentence by the Dickens scholars Kathleen Tillotson and John Butt: "With Pickwick, Dickens embarked upon his lifelong love affair with his reading public; which, when all is said, is by far the most interesting love affair of his life."

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens is the freshest and most insightful book I have read on this great theme since my first schoolboy reading of House. It is written from a double perspective. On the one hand, it takes you through Dickens's early years and his early journalism, and through Pickwick, at a slow tutorial pace, giving you plenty of time to absorb what was influencing Dickens. Simultaneously, it is always looking forward to the mature Dickens.

Two small examples of the way Douglas-Fairhurst operates. When Dickens was working as a lawyer's clerk, he whiled away his spare time at the theatre, and his favourite performer was Charles Mathews at Drury Lane. Mathews did one-man shows, bringing to life "characters" in what he called a "Monopolylogue". Douglas-Fairhurst cunningly intuits that the whole arrangement of the stage during these acts - a simple writing desk set centre-stage - inspired the manner in which Dickens presented his great public readings in later life. He also sees that many of the characters in Mathews's shows must have prompted figures in Dickens's novels.

Rambling Miss Never-end grows (through Dickens's early love for, and later disillusionment with, Maria Beadnell) into Flora Finching. Most strikingly, Mathews's Major Longbow - "Went up myself with Rosiere and Romaine from Boulogne 40 years ago - Montgolfier balloon - fire as large as the Thatched House tavern - three miles high took fire - there was a blaze - all Paris saw us - down we came slap-bang . . ." - is a clear prototype for Mr Jingle's jerky narrative manner. Likewise, of Dickens writing up, as a very young reporter, the fire at Hatfield House in which the eccentric Marchioness of Salisbury accidentally set light to her feathered hairdo with a candle in 1835, Douglas-Fairhurst observes: "Another 25 years would pass before it would burst into life again in Great Expectations, where the same ingre­dients - an eccentric old woman, a creaking old house, outdated fashions, a personal inferno - came together once more in the fiery demise of Miss Havisham."

It is hard to imagine a better book on Dickens than Douglas-Fairhurst's appearing in the coming months. I shall treasure it.

The veteran biographer Claire Tomalin has set herself a different writing task from the convincing and moving study of Nelly Ternan that she published in 1990: to canter through the familiar territory of Dickens's life in not many more than 120,000 words. If you had not read Dickens, or were unfamiliar with his life, this would be a great introduction.

The speed at which Tomalin has to move, however, does not leave much space for reflection. It is well known that The Pickwick Papers
began as a series of sporting illustrations by Robert Seymour for which Dickens wrote the text. Douglas-Fairhurst goes into the sorry story of Seymour's suicide in 1836 and links it with (though scarcely blames it on) Dickens's inability to work within Seymour's strictures, as well as the prodigious popularity of the story, which parted company with the line illustrations. Tomalin simply does not have time to go into why Seymour killed himself. The self-shooting in an Islington backyard is relegated to a rather baffling aside as she hurtles on to discuss Pickwick's success with the public.

Where Tomalin excels is in her depiction of Dickens's marriage, his relationship with his children and the story of his love affair with Nelly. Fair as she is to all the parties, she speaks for most of us when she writes: "You want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the . . . year 1858." This was not only when, aged 46, Dickens gave in to his obsession with the 19-year-old girl, but also when his persecution of his poor wife, Catherine Hogarth, began in earnest.

It is extraordinary that he not only put her away, but also insisted that his children break off relationships with their mother, and with the few friends brave enough to remain on terms with Catherine. He also denounced her - a blameless, broken woman - in the public press. It still makes very uncomfortable reading. Tomalin will certainly prompt those who continue to believe that his relationship with Nelly was platonic to think again. Apart from the testimony of Dickens's daughter Kate, who was convinced that Nelly bore him a son who died in infancy, there is other evidence: how he was prepared to dash about visiting her - 68 trips to France in three years, during which time she almost certainly had his child; the cottage he secretly rented for her in Slough.

Tomalin is not just impressive on the girly stuff. Hers, too, is a book that goes to the heart of the mystery of Dickens as a writer. She makes much of Dostoevsky's visit to Dickens in 1862. "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 . . ."

However much Dostoevsky was projecting himself on to Dickens here, surely we can recognise that the Englishman's fictional world came out of personal experience. We can see it in his weird odyssey from child of a shabby-genteel Marshalsea bankrupt to domestic sentimentalist/sadist, from the lawyer's clerk who amused the others in the office with his imitations to the creator of Dick Swiveller and Wemmick. That life experience is superbly evoked in both of these books.

May I end with a cavil? Harvard University Press has produced, for Douglas-Fairhurst, a fine volume in the best tradition of American bookmaking: nice paper, elegant dust wrapper and binding, a volume to keep on your shelf for ever. Viking has made Tomalin's book look vulgar and garish. Its silly half-cover falls off after five minutes. The endpapers are a mess - part gaudy depictions of Dickens characters, part blurb and author-biog. As one of our finest biographers, Tomalin deserved better than this design disaster.

A N Wilson's latest book is "Dante in Love" (Atlantic Books, £25)

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.