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