The big sneeze. Dan Jacobson on the completion of one of the great feats of modern publishing

The Letters of Charles Dickens: volume 12, 1868-1870

Edited by Graham Storey with Margaret Brown <

The publication of the 12th and final volume of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens's letters is an occasion: it is like a great liner bringing its passengers into port after a long voyage. In the "olden days", when such journeys were the sole means of transporting people from one continent to another, landfall after weeks at sea was always fraught for passengers and crew alike, with mingled feelings of relief, regret and a sense of wonder - at the distances crossed, the weathers and seascapes witnessed, the sudden silencing of the engines that had borne the brunt of the journey.

So with this volume, which is the conclusion of a scholarly effort that, over the past 40 years, has in effect been making its way towards Dickens's death and the end of the editors' conjoint labours. (Not all of them have lived to see the completion of the project.) Now that the entire collection is in hand, it can be regarded as an extraordinarily detailed autobiography of the adult life of the greatest master the English language has known (Shakespeare excepted), and of a public figure who, in his time, dominated the imagination of people in Britain, Europe and the United States to an extent that no other writer has ever equalled.

As with all autobiographies, this "unintentional" account by Dickens of his own life leaves out everything he deliberately chose to keep silent about. Yet, like all other autobiographies, it also unwittingly reveals more about its author as son, father, friend, husband, editor, man of business, public campaigner, orator, and above all artist and public performer, than he himself could ever have guessed. The entire collection presents, in addition, a third-person retelling of Dickens's life by the hands of its different editors, who introduce each volume with a 10- to 15-page summary of the events in the author's life covered in it. (At the rate of about two years apiece.) Finally, the whole compendium is filled out with countless footnotes identifying Dickens's many hundreds of correspondents, and the scarcely smaller number of institutions and public events with which he was associated. Together, these provide a panorama of Victorian life which is often surprising, sometimes funny, and always as exact as scholarship can make it.

The inherent interest of this concluding volume, however, is less rich than some of its predecessors. A third of it is devoted to the correction of minor errors in the previous 11 volumes and to a variety of appendices (one containing Dickens's will, for example), as well as several brief letters that came to the editors' notice too late to appear in the appropriate places earlier. But there is another problem with the book which Dickens himself hints at when he says that the pressure of his commitments has forced him to "crop [his] correspondence as short as an English convict's hair". With its odd suggestion of criminality, that sharp phrase seems at once to reveal and to hide the fact that he never speaks openly, anywhere, of the commitment that matters to him above all others.

The truth, in my view, is that Dickens had started to close up as a letter-writer, or at any rate to give less of himself in his written communications with friends, associates and strangers, soon after he had brutally separated from his wife (in 1858) and begun the much-interrupted, obsessively pursued and fiercely concealed life he led in England and France with Ellen Ternan. An actress 27 years younger than himself, she remained central to his thoughts and passions until his death in 1870, but only the curtest, coded references to her appear in a few of his communications to his closest confidants. (Of his letters to her, not a single line remains.) At all times the man was on his guard, and knew he was on his guard - and never more so than when writing letters that might inadvertently reveal more of his private life than he wished to make known.

"Closing up" is a relative term when used about Dickens. This volume is like the others in leaving the reader both admiring and aghast at the way he drove himself and everyone around him. At the beginning of the book, Dickens is in New York. (He was to return to England having earned from his readings £20,000 in gold - an italicised phrase he repeats several times; evidently he distrusted the stability of the not-yet-almighty dollar.)

He proudly tells his correspondents that people are sleeping all night on the pavement in New York - in the middle of an East Coast winter - in order to secure tickets for his performances. Travelling incessantly, and throwing himself into each reading, he manages to do some sightseeing, to begin arranging his next reading tour back in Britain, and to keep an eye on his editorial responsibilities to his weekly journal, All the Year Round, back in London.

He also takes time to organise a walking race between his two chief assistants and to get them into shape for it by marching them out on "training" sessions that cover five and eight miles each. He writes to his son Henry giving him detailed instructions on how to get elected captain of a cricket team back in Rochester, Kent; and to his daughter Mamie telling her how he wants the chairs in his dining room and library to be re-covered (in red leather and green leather, respectively), and what to do with the carpets in the spare bedrooms, the hall, and the dining room.

All this while suffering from a variety of ailments - faintness, pain in his left foot, numbness down his left side and an awful cold ("the American catarrh", he calls it). To deal with the last of these, he tries a "Rocky Mountain Sneezer", recommended by one of his landlords, its "principal ingredients [being] rum, brandy and snow". The "Sneezer" doesn't work. A couple of days later he writes: "My cold refuses to stir an inch. It distresses me greatly at times, though it is always good enough to leave me for the needful two hours [during the readings]. I have tried allopathy, homeopathy, cold things, warm things, sweet things, bitter things, stimulants, narcotics, all with the same result."

Those last throwaway sentences could be paralleled a hundredfold elsewhere in the book. They offer a single, tiny example of Dickens's capacity to take elements of common experience and to transcribe them effortlessly into forms which are both fierce and comic, discomfiting and wholly recognisable. Who but Dickens would think of recording the fare offered in a provincial hotel as "an old Buffalo for supper, an old Pig for breakfast"; or would allow himself to be distracted from a public performance by the appearance of a dog in the audience, "looking very intently at me", and would then notice the same dog a few nights later "with another dog" whom he had "evidently promised to pass [into the hall], free"? And who would guess that the man writing with so much dash and relish was coming close to working himself to death?

If anything, he drove himself even harder after his return to England. This was true especially of the series of public readings he embarked on soon after getting back. To the familiar parts of his repertoire he added, after much debate with himself as to whether it would be too violent for his audiences to bear, the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. ("The Murder" became his satisfied shorthand term for it in his letters.) It was in fact sensationally successful; but he was reluctant to acknowledge that its effect on himself might prove to be even more violent than it was on his audiences. (He reports with glee on "a dozen ladies borne out stiff and rigid" from a reading at Clifton.) The symptoms he had been suffering from in the States returned in more severe form and alarming new ones appeared: an occasional loss of vision, a greatly increased rate of heartbeat, and so forth.

He cut short his last tour of Britain. But it was as hard for him as for any other performer to leave the boards. He insisted on giving a farewell series of readings in London, which ended in mid-March of 1870. Over the next three months, his health continued to deteriorate. By mid-May, he wrote to a friend that his left foot was "a mere bag of pain which refuses to be carried about"; by mid-June, his amazing life was over.

Dan Jacobson's most recent book is Heshel's Kingdom (Penguin)