The Mystery of Charles Dickens
(Harper, 2020, 358 pages, $32.50)
In the Winter 2002 issue of the The Dickensian, someone named Stephanie Harvey sent a thrill through the little cosmos of Dickens studies with a short piece on Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In “Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion,” Ms. Harvey reported the discovery of a previously unknown, untranslated letter of the great Russian novelist, in which he told a friend about meeting Dickens in London, 1862. The richest section of the letter read as follows:
He told me [wrote Dostoevsky] that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.
Immediately, Dostoevsky’s quotation just sounded right, and the delicious anecdote began making its way into authoritative studies and biographies. However, in the handful of years that followed, a number of scholars in nineteenth-century studies became suspicious of the new “letter,” eventually outing it as a fraud and Stephanie Harvey as a pseudonym—one of several—belonging to the sad mountebank scholar A.D. Harvey. The whole episode is luridly fascinating for a variety of reasons, one of which is the surprising ease with which so many believed Harvey’s ruse. Indeed, it was so believable because it told the truth—Dickens did somehow contain all his bad and good characters—and this startling fact lies at the heart of A.N. Wilson’s new study, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. Somehow the deepest darkness and the clearest light, the fiercest judgment and the easiest mercy, the most sardonic indignation and the cheeriest good humor, all spring from a common source in his novels. How does such a thing happen?
Wilson has written his book in order to pursue Dickens’ mystery, and he has let in as much light as he can on its deep sources beneath the pages of the novels. His method of pursuit is almost as enigmatic as Dickens’ own would be. A different author would have unpacked the relationship between Dickens’ biography and art more straightforwardly, with chapters on different periods of his life, or chapters isolating particular relationships, each neatly separated from the next. In that sort of buttoned-up approach, the history would be discussed, then the fiction, the former more or less explaining the latter. Edgar Johnson’s mid-twentieth-century biography did a fine job following this method, but it does have limitations: it cannot always do justice to the more difficult-to-pin-down parts of a personality. Thus, Wilson follows a different path, selecting broad terrains of mystery in Dickens’ life (among them, chapters on “The Mystery of his Childhood,” “The Mystery of his Cruel Marriage,” “the Mystery of the Public Readings,” etc.), then tracing lines of association, analogy, and investigation, circling through the given terrain, across all phases of Dickens’ career, now looking at the fiction, now the record of his personal life. The experience is one of clever, intuitive pursuit—not unlike Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket, really—but not of simple, pat explanation. With some humility, Wilson lets Dickens remain a mystery, even as he pursues further and further understanding. This gets him (and us) a great deal of vivid clarity, as well as a rich chiaroscuro frame. It is a method both effective and just, and it feels appropriately Dickensian, without straying into precious sentimentality.
For the sake of time and space, I will break down Wilson’s treatment more cleanly than he does, with respect to several of Dickens’ most defining relationships: to his parents, his childhood self, his wife, his mistress, the poor, and his audience. Concerning each of these, Wilson has much to say.
“Dickens’ complex relationships with his mother and father,” first of all, Wilson considers “the seedbed of all his art.” John and Elizabeth Dickens were high-spirited but impecunious, moving from place to place during the novelist’s growing-up years. His mother, especially, Wilson reads as an object of Dickens’ hatred and resentment. “A high proportion of the human race,” Wilson thinks, “angry, perhaps, to have been born—hate their mothers,” and many of Dickens’ more or less contemptible mother-figures have there roots here. From the haplessly silly mother of the protagonist in Nicholas Nickleby to the horrifying alienations of Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit, Wilson traces a thread of Dickensian “mother-hate,” and the heart of it seems to have to do with rejection (Mrs. Clennam, or Lady Dedlock in Bleak House) or neglect (Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, Mrs. Gradgrind in Hard Times). At least part of Dickens’ grudge, of course, has to do with his parents’ willingness to remove him from school and send him to the Blacking Factory at twelve. It was something, perhaps, he held more against his mother than his father, and this animus was a thing he never spoke of to anyone directly: the main evidence lies in the common characteristics of the novels’ many bad mothers.
In his father’s case, as Wilson suggests, Dickens felt a little different. For whatever hidden reasons, “Dickens did not blame his father for the childhood traumas,” like he did his mother. While John Dickens was luckless and penniless for much of his life, Dickens always saw more in him than just trouble. “The two great creations to emerge” in the novels “from the Charles-John Dickens dynamic were Micawber and Dorrit,” the former clearly reflecting the lighter side, the latter the darker. While his father was alive, Dickens could express his sense of the man in the loveable absurdities of David Copperfield’s Mr. Micawber. After the older man’s death in 1851, as Wilson says, “the gloves were off”—the clownish burlesque of Micawber would no longer do: “the full ghastliness of his parents’ improvidence, and its consequences—the Marshalsea Prison and abject humiliation—were able to be examined with [Little Dorrit’s] cold eye.” With Wilson, we are able to see the novels as Dickens’ way of looking back at his parents, sifting through their qualities, and expressing what it was like to live with them in ways he was never able to do directly.
Another mysterious relationship of fundamental importance was Dickens’ connection to his own childhood self. Certainly, we think of Scrooge visiting himself as a schoolboy, or the more autobiographical sections of David Copperfield, but Wilson first alights on a more private moment: during a holiday game with his adult children, Christmas 1869, Dickens was asked for a random phrase to be memorized as part of the competition. He blurted out, “Warren’s Blacking, 30, Strand,” the name and address of the factory where he had worked as a child, four decades earlier—his greatest and most secret humiliation. Only after his death would Dickens’ son Henry put the pieces together and figure out what had happened in his father’s early teenage years. The suffering of that long-ago time, with its shame, fear, disappointment, bitterness, and confusion, Wilson finds over and over again in the novels’ depiction of childhood: the worst things can and will happen to children in a Dickens novel, and he puts us there within the experience. It is part, for Wilson, of Dickens’ “constant habit of concealing things by placing them on the surface of a conversation or narrative. The secrets are on the surface. The true histories, mythologized, lie beneath.” That true history, or open secret, is of a child who was not cared for as he deserved—“for whatever reason,” Wilson concludes, Elizabeth Dickens “had been simply incapable of giving him love.” Instead, he was turned over to the cruelty of an abstract system, run by others without reference to him personally: the fate of Oliver Twist, Jo in Bleak House, Sissy in Hard Times, and many others.
A third mysterious relationship examined by Wilson is the marriage between Charles Dickens and the mother of their ten children, Catherine. The two were for a number of years (it appears) happily married, but as Wilson says, Dickens unceremoniously “dumped his wife Kate” in a house across town by herself “after the fateful obsession with Nelly Ternan took over his existence.” His treatment of Kate in those last thirteen years of his life (1857-1870) was terribly cruel, including a recently unearthed attempt to institutionalize the poor woman on the basis of a cooked-up “moral insanity” diagnosis. Of course, marriages hit the rocks every day: this is not the surprising thing. “The mystery was,” as Wilson suggests,
how could the apostle of kindliness, the novelist who, more than any other, extols the virtues of charity, who waged war on Scrooge, and Bumble and Bounderby, how could he, of all the people in the world, have been so furiously unkind, so vindictively, pointedly and quite unnecessarily cruel, to the woman who had borne his children, and whose faults, in so far as anyone has noted them, were trivial?
There are routes of explanation in the Dickenses’ family life and letters, but the clues to an answer in the fiction are even more interesting. As Wilson says, “almost every [novel] deals, directly or tangentially, with the theme of marital disintegration.” Apparently, Dickens began thinking about it, or at least pondering it indirectly through fiction, quite soon after getting married: “even in the early novel Oliver Twist, written in the first year of his marriage, a book that appears at first to be the melodrama of a child lost in the terrifying streets of criminal London, the theme of marital misery surfaces.” Wilson is also keen to point out how often we find in Dickens’ novels, “not merely totally unsympathetic accounts of marital incompatibility, but quasi-comic glorifications of monster husbands”—men such as Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities. Again, Dickens is able to gesture at notions in the novels that he could never spell out in real life—ideas utterly against his principles: that perhaps many or most marriages are bound to be unhappy, and dissatisfied husbands are not so very wrong to stray into cruelty. In a novel, it is possible to explore such dark territory indirectly, even if one would never admit to going there in person.
Another mysterious place Charles Dickens often went was bound up with the actress who became his secret mistress, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan. The affair was closely guarded, leading Dickens into an elaborate double life throughout the 1860s, and Wilson weaves the mystery of their illicit relationship throughout his chapters, beginning with the first, “The Mystery of Fifteen Pounds, Thirteen Shillings and Ninepence.” According to Wilson, this is the amount of money Dickens must have spent on Nelly the day before he died: at his death on June 9, 1870, six pounds, six shillings and threepence were found in his pocket, which, subtracted from the £22 check he had cashed on the 8th, leaves the mysterious missing figure. It is a symbol, for Wilson, of the great invisible plot strand of Dickens’ life. As in the cases of his parents and wife, the Nelly Ternan mystery comes out more strongly in the fiction than in any real-life record. For example in Little Dorrit, written before he had even met Nelly, Dickens “had watched a little child-bride”—the protagonist, Amy Dorrit—“flit in and out of the shadows, unaware of the fact that, months after he had finished dreaming about her, he would find her, materialized and realized, in a little actress in Manchester,” Miss Ternan. Of course, though, Dickens had already been famous for his sweet, young, marriageable female characters, since at least the time of David Copperfield’s “child-wife” Dora: Dickens was, right on the surface of his fiction, profoundly interested in the possibility of finding a Nelly Ternan for himself (she was 18 when the 46-year-old Dickens happened upon her). This mysterious plotline, tied up with desires and contradictions Dickens would never be able to face, had begun in his imaginative life long before it emerged in a fully embodied affair.
Next, we come to the mystery of Dickens’ relation to the poor and needy. In a fascinating chapter, “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Dickens,” Wilson discusses the philanthropic work that was “continuous throughout his life, “including, notably, the home Dickens designed and helped run for “fallen women” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the novels, too, the greatest solicitude for the poor is constantly on display; one thinks of “Tom-All-Alone’s” in Bleak House, the Coketown factories in Hard Times, and the neighborhood of Saint Antoine in A Tale of Two Cities. What Wilson is most sensitive to here is the contradiction between Dickens’ undeniable, bleeding-heart charity, on the one hand, and his obsessions with justice, control, and order, on the other:
Dickens near-mania for tidiness and cleanliness was observed by his daughter Mamie. At home, “he made a point of visiting every room in the house once each morning and if a chair was out of place, or a blind not quite straight, or a crumb left on the floor, woe betide the offender!”
Dickens’ heart, then, seems to have been riven by opposing impulses: “he was a divided self: one half the nice cop, the other the nasty cop.” He also somehow combined his concern for “fallen women” with his own furtive, guilty, but generally unrepented falls: such contradictions come out mysteriously in the fiction, in Dickens’ dashing but violent rakes, on one side (Copperfield’s Steerforth, Hard Times’ Harthouse, Little Dorrit’s Gowan, etc.), and the hurt or fallen women they prey upon, on the other—so sympathetically portrayed in Dickens’ novels. Dickens himself, as the faux Dostoevsky letter asserted, had both the good and the evil inside, never quite to be reconciled.
A final mystery explored by Wilson pertains to Dickens’ last years, when he became a renowned public reader of his works. Before the reading tours began to fill concert halls, as Wilson notes, Dickens had already cultivated an implicit relationship with his readers, one maintained by the constant moral irony of his narrators: “the experience of reading Dickens, of falling under the spell of the enchanter . . . is to accept the habitual heavy irony of his language.” It arises throughout, but he lays it on with particular sauciness when describing the things he least likes: Bleak House’s Chancery, or Our Mutual Friend’s “society,” or the prisons of several of the novels. When he went on tour in the final decade of his life, entertaining unheard-of crowds, Dickens entered more than ever into the power of his own voice. As Wilson says, “we are in deep water when it comes to the readings.” “For whatever reason, after Nelly entered his life,” the readings “became a psychological necessity.” Part of what explains it, thinks Wilson, is the almost religious relationship he had with his audience: “the readings had something about them of a revivalist rally or a case of mass hypnotism.” Dickens in the darkest time of his life, with his family in ruins, his mistress in hiding, his health declining toward the horizon of death, felt the profound need of these audiences, for whom he could plan an almost Christlike role. As always, this sort of interpretation, to whatever extent it is true, is more suggested by Dickens’ art than by anything he said explicitly. The surface draws us beneath itself, into the depths.
Now, in his dogged, delightful pursuit of all these mysterious relationships, A.N. Wilson has written an entrancing, illuminating book: several nights, I really could not put the thing down. As I have already said, his commitment to the looping, zig-zagging path of memory and association—jumping from a childhood recollection to Dickens to his last novel, then a piece of youthful journalism, followed by a parallel image from one of the American tours—really works better than a lot of more straight-forward, biographical approaches. It is more appropriate to the clandestine psychological paths Wilson is here trying to sketch out. It can also be slightly tedious in its repetitions every once in a while: the claims to which Wilson returns most frequently—Dickens’ doubleness, and his hypocrisy, for instance—clearly are some of the moral issues that bother Wilson most in the novelist’s life. At times, these aspects of the Dickens mystery seem to occlude the rest. One could wish that Wilson had treated them with a bit more delicacy in places, even where his concerns seem well-founded.
One of the most helpful treatments in The Mystery of Charles Dickens is of the relationship, not between any two people, but between fiction and life itself. While this is obviously not the book’s central focus, the question necessarily comes up again and again along the way. On the one hand, Wilson clearly looks to Dickens’ history to help account for his novels: his repeated themes, character-types, plot varieties, and so forth, all relate organically to realities in the novelist’s past, present, and desired future. And yet, as Wilson asserts, it is not as simple as Dickens’ life explaining his imagination: “Actually, what is happening in the ‘Life’ of a novelist is something much less straightforward than this, and the reductive attempt to draw the connections between ‘real’ and fictional life leads to various levels of clumsiness.” Really, the historical life, as Wilson helps us see, is caught up into and explained by the fiction, just as much as the reverse. Art and life mutually frame one another, and Dickens’ fiction knows things that neither he nor any of us could easily say. Thus, a waggish line from the critic John Bayley holds true in its way: “No novelist has profited more richly than Dickens from not examining what went on in his own mind.”
Finally, whatever its other excellences, A.N. Wilson’s investigation into Dickens’ art and life succeeds because he makes it include his own mysterious relationship with the Victorian novelist. (Here, Wilson’s approach to Dickens brings to mind that of G.K. Chesterton early in the twentieth century, though Wilson gives more scope to the novelist’s moral and spiritual darkness than Chesterton ever wanted to.) Vignettes from his own life reading Dickens come up here and there in the book, but in the final chapter, Wilson takes an extended turn through his years as a boy at Rugby School, where he first discovered the novelist. These were, as Wilson describes them, excruciatingly painful years, in which he and other boys were serially, unspeakably abused by the headmaster and his family. At the same time, a teacher there had introduced him to Dickens, where he found accounts of the suffering of children that really let in light on his own devastating experiences:
I survived my own childhood traumas by realizing that my tormentors were not only figures of pure horror, but also that they were as comic as Wackford Squeers, as grotesque as Fagin, though as cruel as Mr. Murdstone. Katharsis through tears, but not through tears alone: that was what Dickens offered—offers—me, and millions upon millions of readers. That is why of all the nineteenth-century English writers, in prose or rhyme, he has remained the most popular.
In these moving lines, Wilson gets at what is, for my money, Dickens’ greatest and most beautiful mystery: his capacity to bring light out of darkness (even when the darkness was his own), finding comedy in the tragic ruins of human affairs. In this book, A.N. Wilson has followed the same Dickensian path, bringing little joys and beauties out of even the darkest corners. We may imagine that Dostoevsky would have approved.