I haven’t yet got my hands on the new Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin and I felt weak at the prospect of one thousand pages of Peter Ackroyd’s seminal account. Instead I took up Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens which was in the house and clocks in at only 200 pages.
Smiley’s is not an original work – she relies on Ackroyd and other recent surveys of Dickens’ life and work – but she does provide a concise and informative account that I’d recommend for anyone in this bicentennial year who wants a fast but insightful introduction to the phenomenon of Dickens.
I say phenomenon because Smiley observes the several ways in which Dickens is extraordinary – his ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood to his career as the most acclaimed novelist of his time (‘the first true celebrity’), his boundless energy and action-packed public life, and the dramas of his personal life and relationships.
Dickens’ energy seems to have been boundless throughout his life, something often commented upon by his acquaintances. He had the habit of taking long, vigorous daily walks (he regularly covered twenty and sometimes thirty miles) on top of all his other activities – writing to the frightening deadlines of serialised publication, amateur dramatics, active involvement with charitable organisations, travel, social engagements , and the demands of his large and continually growing family. Even in 1865, just five years before his death and not a well man, he showed great courage and physical strength when involved in a serious train crash in Kent.
The original aspect that Jane Smiley brings to her account is to interpret the intersection between Dickens’ life and his writing from the perspective of a novelist. She discusses the way in which his novels not only reflected aspects of his personal experience, but how Dickens also used his writing almost as a form of psychotherapy to overcome feelings of guilt and shame about his childhood, his father’s bankruptcy, and the difficulties of his own marriage. In putting forward this Freudian analysis, Smiley notes that Dickens was Sigmund Freud’s favourite author.
Clearly, all novelists brings some knowledge of dramatic states of mind to their writing. As Smiley remarks, if they had no such knowledge, then they would have no business with, and no interest in, novels or drama.
Audiences and readers want something to happen, and writers are ready to portray some of the things that can happen. Often this knowledge does have its root in the experience of the artist, though as frequently it has its origins in sensitive and eager observation (both of these were certainly true of Dickens). But the experience of writing about and depicting these dramatic incidents is at least as important as their origins, because the novelist bodies them forth, comments upon them, reacts to them; he learns from them and gives them both form and meaning, rather like, in a simpler way, expressing anger in words sometimes relieves feelings and sometimes exacerbates them.
Smiley examines each of Dickens’ works from this perspective – how he drew upon his life experience, and, simultaneously, how the process helped him to come to terms with hidden or suppressed feelings:
What might have remained inchoate becomes specific through making a narrative of it in a way that is analogous to psychotherapy. The novelist, unlike the patient, defines his story as fiction and therefore retains at least some distance from it, but he nevertheless learns to interpret it. Often it loses its power over him, as Dickens came to terms with his months in the blacking factory after giving them to David Copperfield. But he may also learn things about his true state of mind that might have remained shadowy had he not embodied them.
What makes this short book particularly interesting is the way in which Smiley relates each novel to Dickens’ biography, showing how each work of fiction not only drew upon his past, but also reflected his current circumstances and state of mind:
Authors live in a dialogue with their work, and their work is their inner life made concrete. Were they not susceptible to the reality of art, they wouldn’t have become authors in the first place. They would naturally be at least as susceptible to the power of their own art as to the power of the art of others, and from the beginning of his career, Dickens’s letters attest to his enthusiasm for and belief in every novel he wrote.
Smiley also explores the way in which Dickens’ popularity and notoriety grew rapidly with each successive novel, making him ‘the first true celebrity of the popular arts’, later earning the equivalent of around £30,000 a night in a dynamic one-man act in which he performed his ‘greatest hits’ – scenes from A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and so on – to the delight of rapt audiences. She writes:
If we see Dickens as the first true celebrity of the popular arts – that is, a man whose work made him rich and widely famous, as close to a household name as any movie star is today – then we also can see him as the first person to become a ‘brand name’. For many years, his name on the first instalment of a serialization sold copies in and of itself. [… ] Dickens … counted on his name to bring in a certain number of readers, and he felt a strong obligation toward them. He always felt his job was to please and entertain readers, not to shock and confront them, and certainly not to offend them.
Dickens was different, too, in another respect: unlike other Victorian novelists, he did not have family wealth to support him as a writer. Instead, drawing on his deep reserves of skill and energy, he exploited his chosen modus operandi – the novel published as a serial – to the full:
The new thing, in every way, was for an author to support himself or herself through sales of his or her work, and in this Dickens was pioneer and exemplar. The form of serial monthly or weekly publication not only helped him find a wide audience (every issue sold, it has been estimated, found fifteen readers), it also helped him keep that audience interested. The analogy, of course, is to soap opera-type serials. Dickens’s exquisite natural responsiveness, combined with his amazing inventiveness, meant that a form other authors found onerous was perfectly suited to him.
Dickens, Smiley notes, had perpetual money worries. Juliet John, Professor of Victorian literature at Liverpool University, and author of Dickens and Mass Culture, also remarked on how he wrote letters about money all the time:
When he did public readings, which were really PR tours, from the 1850s onwards, he would write to friends literally characterising the audience as pounds or dollars.
His lowly class origins were what made Dickens so dependent on earnings from his writing and, later, his reading tours (which brought him to Liverpool and the Concert Room in St Georges Hall many times between 1842 and 1869). But, argues, Smiley, Dickens’ social mobility made him unique in another respect:
Dickens found himself in a unique position to observe all facets of British society. He was unconstrained by a classical education, untrained, as it were, to look at English society in the traditional way. His first thirty years were, in a fashion that contrasted with that of almost everyone around him, a training in freedom – in forming his own opinions, in judging for himself, in observing the effects of one group upon another, one class upon another, of institutions upon individuals and individuals upon institutions. He differed from all of his contemporaries in that he represented no group, therefore he came to represent all. His medium, the novel, enhanced his freedom, since the novel can never work except through freedom – the author is free to write, and the reader is free to read. […] The very oddities of both the man and his work further promoted his freedom, since his mind ranged freely over all sorts of characters, ideas, and settings. And he frequently took pains to speak out against abridgments of freedom, such as the closing of shops on Sunday, the only day when working people were able to buy, and other laws restricting the lives of the poor, as well as narrow and joyless religious and charitable institutions. By temperament, by training, and by intention, Dickens was a modern man, whose essential quality was the desire for freedom of thought and action.
The issue that has fascinated all observers is the relationship between Dickens’ politics and the novels. Smiley presents a complex picture of a man whose ideas became more radical as the years went by – who supported charities aimed at the betterment of the poor and marginalised, and spoke out in favour of campaigns to improve factory working conditions to which he donated the proceeds from several public readings – but whose radicalism was not Marxism. Explaining the sources of his radicalism, Smiley traces a nexus between Dickens’ focus as a novelist and ideas rooted in his Christian values:
The conditions that so appalled Dickens constituted the major political and philosophical challenge of his era. The novel, like any other artistic form, makes an inherent philosophical assertion – that the mental life of the individual is worth anatomizing and that the disruptions that exist among individuals and between individuals and groups are understandable and soluble through individual transformation and action. Dickens expanded and expanded his canvas because he intuited that the complexities of the social dilemmas he was interested in could not be convincingly portrayed in miniature. Other thinkers, not novelists, had other ideas about the significance of individuals and individualism, but Dickens’s chosen form saddled him with a philosophical question he tried ardently to solve, both artistically and personally, for his entire life. The controversies that arise about Dickens’s real political views, in my opinion, arise primarily from the fact that a novelist always, and increasingly, sees the trees rather than the forest, and is naturally unsympathetic to a collective solution, while always more or less in favour of a connective solution.
It was that ‘connective solution’, Smiley suggests, which was central to Dickens’ view of the social problems of his time. In an essay about a millworkers’ strike in Preston that lasted half a year and which provided the inspiration for Hard Times, Dickens wrote:
Into the relations between employerrs and employed, as into all the relations in life, there must enter something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration … otherwise those relations are rotten to the core and will never bear sound fruit.
Smiley pursues this idea through analysis of the novels, showing how Dickens reveals the failings of social institutions through the connections between his characters.In Bleak House, for example, the overarching metaphor is the ancient and costly Chancery suit of Jarndyce v Jarndyce to which every character, highborn or lowborn, is connected.
The book charts a succinct course through Dickens’ life, subtly interweaving biographical details with comments on the novels and Dickens’ developing style. Smiley writes that,
Dickens’s tonal and stylistic choices were always remarkable for their richness and variety. He could do low comedy, melodrama, farce, fairy tale, confession, sarcasm, lyricism, romance, extended analogy, dialect imitation. He had an ear for every sort of discourse, both written and oral. He did not always use an elevated literary style, something for which he was criticized in his time. He was not always considered to be in control of his material, but rather he was sometimes accused of being carried into sentimentality or tastelessness.
One thing about Dickens’ novels that has been acknowledged by many commentators (though not discussed by Smiley) is how well they lend themselves to being adapted to screen and stage (though Smiley does suggest how his dramatic public readings were , in a sense, the start of this). Dickens has been adapted for film and TV more than any other novelist. Television adaptations have followed at a steady flow over the decades. In fact, sometimes it can be hard to recall whether our personal memories of a Dickens novel derive from book or screen (I touched on this, writing about Great Expectations recently).
A few weeks ago, in Dickens on Film, a documentary shown in the BBC Arena strand, the claim was even made for Dickens as the progenitor of film. Ever since the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1902, the programme argued, film-makers have identified all the key elements of cinema language in his work, from montage to cliff-hangers, and the importance of dialogue and cinematic pace in storytelling. Apparently, Sergei Eisenstein, George Bernard Shaw, and DW Griffith all contended that Dickens wrote in a cinematic language years before cinema. They perceived a cinematic quality to his narrative, in which chapters open with large, framing panoramic sweeps – the widescreen shot – and then home in on the particular – a household, a character, a street.
These days, as a result of over familiarity perhaps, we can take Dickens a little for granted. Smiley identifies the significance of his contribution to the evolution of the novel, encompassing the lives of servants and masters in a way that only Shakespeare had done before him:
Dickens repeatedly pushed the English novel away from standard realism at the same time that he pushed it away from depicting the English bourgeoisie. He expanded the social and economic scope of the novel while expanding its linguistic resources with no regard for class status or stylistic propriety – he gave his narrator and his array of characters many tongues to speak in, quite a few of which were visionary or poetical, and which themselves undermined the ‘realism’ of the form. Ultimately, he required, or allowed, the reader to regard more of the life around him by allowing it to be important enough to get into a novel. He thereby expanded the audience of the novel itself.
Some novelists plough the same field novel after novel. Others map the world. No novelist has mapped so much of the world, right at the borderline where the inner world and the outer world meet, as Charles Dickens. He has inexhaustibly delineated states of mind, emotions, symbols, ideas, the rational life, and the irrational life, but also London and Kent and Manchester and America and Italy and France and Scotland and Sussex and Essex and Norfolk. He is the novelist who comes closest of all novelists to delivering on that illusory promise of the novel – to tell everything there is to know about everyone, and to tell it in an incomparably fresh and delightful way.