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February 5, 2012

The Men Who Were Dickens

In two days, the world will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man who, by general consensus, is the second-greatest writer in the history of the English language. The acclaim is by no means unanimous: Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Virginia Woolf cringed at Charles Dickens' vulgarity, just as Voltaire, Goethe and Shaw decried William Shakespeare's. But the current issues of the three highly disparate publications I have in front of me now--The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Hudson Review--demonstrate the continuing reverence the world has for Dickens. The focus of the Smithsonian article--the dozenth-or-so film adaptation of Great Expectations, scheduled for release this fall--attests to Dickens' continuing popularity. He was an unrivaled literary superstar during his lifetime, and that star remains undimmed 142 years after his death.

It should be no surprise, however, that even as Dickens' genius is universally acknowledged, his personality continues to be a topic of heated controversy. Those who cherish the deep compassion and humanity of his novels, and who know of the multiplicitous, selfless acts of charity he made during his life, find it dispiriting to learn of his private life. Dickens was a cruel and unfaithful husband, who cast off his wife of 22 years to take up with an actress less than half his age, and an exacting, disapproving father whose nine surviving children crumbled under the weight of his iron fist. Only his son Henry, the only one to inherit anything like his father's superhuman energy and intelligence, had anything approaching his father's success, becoming a barrister, a Queen's Counsel, and a knight of the realm. The others tended to die young and deeply in debt.

Both the Smithsonian and Hudson Review articles cite "Charles Dickens: A Life," Claire Tomalin's recent biography, as a major source. Susan Balee's article in The Hudson Review is essentially a review of the Tomalin biography, which delves deeper into Dickens' private life--particularly his thirteen-year affair with Ellen Ternan--than any previous biography. Balee quotes Tomalin on Dickens' behavior during the affair. "A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defense. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking."

A little further down in the same paragraph, Balee cites Tomalin again regarding Dickens' meeting with Dostoyevsky as the best explanation for the extremes of his behavior. "Dickens told the younger Russian writer he had two sides to his nature, one of which was evil. The good side was where his good characters came from, and the evil side created Quilp and Sikes, Squeers and Headstone."

In a footnote, Balee makes her own addition, quoting Dostoyevsky's reply: "Only two people?"

Balee bows to Dostoyevsky's powers of observation, and so do I. For it is plain that if any author in history was the sum total of his characters, it was Dickens. (We don't know enough about Shakespeare to know if that was also true of him. If so, we can only pity Anne Hathaway for having to deal with Macbeth, Iago, and Richard III.) Every last character he created came from the wellsprings of his heart and soul. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield were there; so were Bob Cratchit and Mr. Micawber, Pickwick and Sam Weller, the unrepentant and reformed Scrooge, as well as the aforementioned Quilp and Squeers. But there was one limitation: that multiplicity of personality was singularly, ragingly male. Regarding Dickens' relations with women, it is revealing to note--as Balee and Tomalin do--that Dickens had trouble creating adult women characters who weren't plaster saints. As Balee writes, "He invented not only characters, but the people around him. No wonder he often failed to understand his own closest friends and family members--when they asserted themselves as real people, he was stunned." In this fault, Dickens was different in degree from almost all of humanity, but not I think different in kind from many of us. To what extent do we project the personalities we want to see on the people we love? And to what extent does our unhappiness stem from when they don't react to us the way we expect?

In any case, to quote Dickens' detractor Wilde, "The truth is never plain and rarely simple." So it was with Dickens. From the complexity of his mind and personality came some of the most disarmingly detailed, pulsatingly living fiction ever written. Jonathan H. Grossman, in his Washington Post article on Dickens, warns against regarding Dickens as a moralistic writer. "'A Christmas Carol' aside, he is not writing fables or tracts," Grossman writes. "Don't be fooled into underestimating or trying to draw lessons from the characters' comic names or the fixed phrases they sometimes compulsively repeat. Dickens' characters are never simple or simpletons." Dickens, in the end, was like all of us, only more so. Just as we tend to be different people in different company, Dickens contained multitudes, more multitudes than even Walt Whitman might have imagined. He was greatest when he embraced those multitudes--and, like us, he got into trouble when he tried to oversimplify.

About February 2012

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