Charles Dickens, according to Carlyle, had eyebrows he arched “amazingly.” His diet included raspberries (no cream). He made gin punch, and served it as often as he could. He caught cold a lot. He was a great walker. If he didn’t get his walks in, “I should just explode and perish.” He started the day with a cold shower. Wherever he went, he made a point of visiting prisons, factories, asylums, brothels and morgues. Of his tastes and habits, what’s left to learn?
Claire Tomalin uncovered an entire person. In 1990, she published The Invisible Woman, her triple award-winning account of actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, Dickens’s mistress. They met when Dickens was 45 and Ternan just 18; their nearly 13-year affair was hidden from all but Dickens’s closest circle. As she wrote Nelly back into Dickens’s life, Tomalin became convinced Ternan had given birth to son who died in infancy. Another bombshell: Dickens might have spent the day before he died in London with his mistress, who had him driven back home to Gad’s Hill in Kent, unconscious, in a two-horse carriage. Expect to find both scenarios repeated in her new biography, which coincides with the upcoming bicentenary of Dickens’ birth on Feb. 7.
With so much now known, biography becomes a matter of tone, accent and point of view. The first modern biographer of Dickens who is a woman, Tomalin is curious about what women thought about him – for instance, 19-year-old Eleanor Picken, who “left the only written account of the impression he made on a young woman while he was still young himself.” Picken found him moody, even scary. He pulled her hair, ruined her bonnets under a waterfall, and holding her fast at the end of a jetty, threatened to drown her – “Quilpish” behaviour, Tomalin observes, meaning he was acting out the malevolent dwarf from The Old Curiosity Shop, his novel-in-progress at the time.
Dickens’s Quilpish side erupted in his notorious treatment of Catherine, his passive and perpetually pregnant wife: 10 children and two miscarriages in 15 years. He married her “because he wanted to be married,” Tomalin writes. “He did not want a wife who would compel his imagination.” Catherine doesn’t compel hers, either, she admits: “So little of her personality appears in any eyewitness account of the Dickens household that it seems fair to say there was not much there to describe.” Of course, Catherine didn’t get a chance to be fascinating with a husband who was always on the boil and ran his household like a boot camp.
How it ended is a familiar episode. Dickens insisted on a separation after 22 years of marriage, and published a press release to that effect. A harsher statement accusing Catherine of admitting to “a mental disorder” found its way into the New York Tribune. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it “a crime, for a man to use his genius as a cudgel against his near kin,” implying Dickens had a Sikes-ish side too. His re-enactment of Sikes’s brutal murder of the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist, performed before swooning throngs all over England, was a personal favourite. No sooner had he finished killing off the wretched woman than he wanted to go back onstage and kill her again. His children could arouse his murderous instincts too, particularly when they ran up debts, as fifth son Sydney did. “I begin to wish he were honestly dead,” Dickens wrote to fourth son Alfred – “words so chill they are hard to believe,” Tomalin says.
Dickens’s killer instinct is a tax on Tomalin’s legendary empathy. When he’s “at his best as a man,” she’s at her best as a biographer. She starts her book in 1840, when Dickens came to the rescue of a servant girl accused of murdering her illegitimate newborn. Convinced it was a case of death by natural causes, he persuaded his bloodthirsty peers at the Marylebone workhouse of her innocence, averting the possibility of the death penalty when she stood trial for concealing a birth. He had food sent to the prison, found her a lawyer, helped her back to a job. He knew what poverty was – he had been put to work at 12, labelling bottles of shoe blacking while his father was in prison for debt – and would never, neither in fiction nor in real life, turn his back on the helpless cast-offs of Victorian society.
That’s why, with funding from banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, he started Urania House, a home for prostitutes – fallen women, in Victorian parlance. Dickens accepted there was a double standard: Men needed sex, but its providers were doomed to misery. He set up a program second to none for boldness, originality and imagination, according to Tomalin in one of her best chapters. Dickens took charge of everything, finding a house, fitting up the rooms, selecting the “inmates,” choosing the colours of their dresses, setting the rules: Services yes, but no fire and brimstone. The women were tutored in reading, writing and the domestic arts, and given passage to the colonies where they could start new lives. Drawing on recent research, Tomalin lists eight former inmates by name in the Cast List at the front of the book – eight more invisible women revealed.
It bothers her that Dickens was fascinated by prostitutes “yet never wrote about them in his novels” – convincingly, that is. Nancy she terms “the chief failure” of Oliver Twist, “like an actress in a bad play.” The prostitute Martha in David Copperfield “speaks in the dismal clichés of melodrama”; Little Em’ly, a fallen woman thanks to Steerforth, is “characterless.” Tomalin allows Victorians wouldn’t stand for allusions to sex, but won’t let Dickens off the hook: “The deeper reason was that he did not know how to write or think about it.” She won’t let anyone get away with thinking the half-finished Edwin Drood, Dickens’s final novel, is a masterpiece – she finds the charm a little forced and the mystery slight – but she hails it as “the achievement of a man who is dying and refusing to die,” calling it “an astonishing and heroic enterprise.” Her biography is not so astonishing, merely pointed and suave.
Adele Freedman is a writer and critic living in Toronto and Paris.
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