Revisiting Dickens (and Friend)

CHARLES DICKENS was an instinctive Romantic who focused his powerful and intensely poetic imagination on the grim realities of lower- and middle-class urban life in the heart of the 19th century. As his most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, points out, Dickens possessed in full degree the 19th-century novelist's confidence in the writer's ability to describe the real world in all its solid detail. Yet for Dickens, Ackroyd claims, ``nothing was real until it was written down;... in the act of composing them [his novels] they were more real to him than anything surrounding him in the actual world.'' Like Wordsworth, Dickens believed that childhood perceptions and experiences serve as a touchstone for evaluating all that comes later. But where Wordsworth understood how the intensity of a child's imagination slowly ``fades into the light of common day,'' recaptured only in privileged moments of memory and feeling, Dickens seems to have carried into adulthood many of the intense emotions, the insecurity, the extreme sensitivity, moodiness, and alternating bursts of warm generosity and blind egocentricity that had characterized his boyhood. When he looked at the real world ``realistically,'' what he saw was a reality deeply colored by his own strong subjectivity. The power of his fiction comes from this interplay. Dickens was a passionate, driven, almost demonic man, a contradictory bundle of harshness and sympathy, sincerity, and self-delusion. What Ackroyd's biography best conveys is the feverish brilliance of Dickens's imagination - and the feverish energy, squalor, and excitement of the age in which he lived. ``No Londoner,'' writes Ackroyd, ``was ever completely well, and when in 19th-century fiction urban life is described as `feverish' it was a statement of medical fact and not a metaphor.... [F]or most of his life Dickens lived in a city in which the odour of the dead emanated from metropolitan graveyards, where adults and children died of malnutrition or disease, where open sewers and cesspools spread their miasma into the foggy air....'' Ackroyd's own stance in this extravagantly long, wildly flawed, and vividly evocative book is one of almost feverish identification with his subject. This is not to suggest that Ackroyd takes Dickens's side in everything or fails to see his faults, but rather that this biography is written in a style and in a spirit that emulate and imitate Dickens. Ackroyd is an Englishman whose previous books include an insightful biography of T.S. Eliot and several novels, including two interesting fictionalized treatments of literary figures, ``Chatterton'' and ``The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.'' His biography of Dickens, coming after some quite good, scholarly lives like Fred Kaplan's ``Dickens'' (1988) and Edgar Johnson's ``Charles Dickens'' (1952), has the distinctive, very unscholarly virtue of seeking wisdom through the pathway of excess. Ackroyd allows himself to plunge into his subject, to wallow in it. Like Dickens, who was often accused of sentimentality and overwriting, but who achieved his finest effects through the incantatory power of his prose, Ackroyd is not afraid to go too far. To some extent, this works for him. But in other respects, it does not. Dickens used sentence fragments to great advantage, as in the opening lines of ``Bleak House.'' Ackroyd's constant use of sentence fragments is often just plain silly. This rich, rather marvelous book is crammed with fascinating bits of information and crackles with life. But it is full of egregious flaws, the kind a beginning writer would have learned to avoid: blowzy sentences, vapid or untrue generalizations, like ``the memories of old ladies are notoriously inaccurate''123 or ``There is in great artists a secret momentum that always draws them forward so that they can ride over obstacles and avoid side-tracks without even realising that they are doing so....''140 Pretty convenient! Ackroyd has also inserted six self-conscious, sometimes self-indulgent little chapters featuring Dickens's characters coming to life: a chat between Dickens and Little Dorrit, a symposium discussion with Dickens, Chatterton, Wilde, and T.S. Eliot, a conversation between Dickens and Ackroyd, and Ackroyd's assessment of his own biographical methodology. This is the sort of postmodern game that is questionable even when played out brilliantly. Ackroyd's reanimation of Dickens's characters - and of the other literary figures, all of whom are subjects of Ackroyd's earlier works - is limp and tired. On the vexing question of Dickens's secret 12-year relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan, which lasted from his 45th year until his death in 1870, Ackroyd asks us to shed our late 20th-century presumptions long enough to consider the possibility that Dickens was speaking the truth when he claimed it was chaste. There is something refreshing about Ackroyd's refusal to assume that Dickens was simply a conventional Victorian man leading a double life and lying about it. But there is evidence that two of Dickens's children knew that Ellen Ternan had borne him a child who died, which rather puts an end to the idea of a chaste brother-sister, father-daughter relationship. There is no question that Ellen, or Nelly, as she was called, was the last, longest, and most serious of Dickens's infatuations with younger women. It was his love for this girl, 27 years his junior, that helped precipitate his separation from his already estranged wife, who had borne him the 10 children who established his popular image as the home-loving Victorian paterfamilias. Biographers and critics have been divided about Nelly, as they have been about the nature of the love affair and the question of the child who died. Was the young actress ``a mercenary minx or a doll-like victim''?122 Claire Tomalin's crisply written study, ``The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens,'' poses the question somewhat facetiously, but never loses sight of how difficult it is for any biographer to see into the heart of his or her subject. Her Nelly is an intelligent but far from extraordinary woman who was exhilarated, honored, and in many ways trapped by the love of an extraordinary man. As Tomalin reminds us, theater people occupied a dubious position in Victorian society: Actresses were considered to be little better than prostitutes, yet their ladylike stage manners were thought to be exemplary. The theater also offered women one of the few ways of having a career in which their talents might be exercised and rewarded. Nelly's secret relationship with Dickens took her off the stage (unlike some other members of her theatrical family, she was not an especially gifted thespian), and her subsequent marriage to a clergyman further deepened her desire to conceal her theatrical - and sexual - past. Without making undue presumptions, Tomalin recreates the interesting and somewhat precarious world of Nelly, her mother, and her talented sisters, Maria and Fanny, in a lively and intelligent biography that is also a neat little slice of social history. Tomalin, incidentally, shares biographer Fred Kaplan's view that the relationship was consummated, although Katharine Longley, the scholar to whom Tomalin dedicates her book, shares Ackroyd's view that it was not. Dickens's love for Nelly was part of his lifelong fascination with the theater, an art form that was not at its best in Victorian England. Fortunately, his genius for creating character, his ear for the idiosyncracies of the spoken word, and his strong sense of drama found their way into a form that was reaching a new high point in his time. And if the 19th century was an age of great novels, Charles Dickens is one of the major reasons why. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/dbdick.

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