My Favourite Books About Dickens
Writing about Charles Dickens is almost as big an industry as books venerating the Brontë sisters. Every age takes an appropriate critical view that chimes with current obsessions, but where, say, Jane Austen unites critics in worship, Dickens divides for the simple reason that he is so profligate with contrary opinions that it’s possible to find enough evidence to support any argument for or against him.
‘He is very much a man of one idea,’ said his friend John Forster, ‘each having its turn of absolute predominance.’ It gives anyone going for a definitive biography a headache, so side-angles are chosen.
Going head to head with two masterful but different takes are the always excellent Claire Tomalin and Peter Ackroyd, Tomalin more sensitive to the plight of Dickens’ wife Catherine and his secret lover Nelly Ternan. She also interweaves Dickens’ writing and his life together so that you can better judge how one affected the other. The longer Ackroyd version (it also exists in truncated form) has a habit of drifting off at tangents but is still good. I prefer Michael Slater’s earlier ‘Dickens’, probably still the benchmark biography. Sometimes it feels that Ackroyd attempts subjects as if they were mountains; they’re still there and he hasn’t climbed them yet.
A confession; I don’t like literary biographies. I’m not looking for an instruction manual to a roman á clef. However, Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The Making of Charles Dickens’ is unusually pertinent in looking at the young Charles because he used so much of his disastrous early years in his novels. Plus…it’s Hibbert. The man couldn’t write a dull shopping list.
Michael & Mollie Hardwick’s little encyclopaedia is a lovely book for writers – by placing al the opening descriptions of his characters together you gain an insight into the way Dickens’ mind worked. The most repeated criticism is that he does not step inside his characters’ heads, but that was not what he set out to do. Admire his technique here and in John Sutherland’s similar tome.
Saving the best (and least known) for last, I find the poet John Carey”s book ‘The Violent Effigy’ most insightful of all because it gives me what I most want. I’ve never been too interested in whether an author’s home life influenced their writing, but I want to know how their mind works, and Carey’s study is about the creative imagination.
In the introduction he points out, ‘Dickens is essentially a comic writer. The urge to conceal this can be traced to a suspicion that comedy, compared to tragedy, is light. Comedy is felt to be artificial and escapist; tragedy, toughly real. The opposite view seems more accurate; tragedy is tender to man’s dignity and self-importance, and preserves the illusion that he is a noble creature. Comedy uncovers the absurd truth, which is why people are so afraid of being laughed at in real life. Once Dickens starts laughing nothing is safe, from Christianity to dead babies.’
This, it seems to me, gets to the truth of Dickens’ art, and is why the recent film version of David Copperfield succeeded so brilliantly. Too much ‘serious’ literature is presented with a grim face, but the world is not like that. In Gary Oldman’s remarkable film ‘Nil By Mouth’ (1997), after the family faces horrendous tribulations that should have torn them apart, they set off to visit a son now in a psychiatric ward and are still making jokes – because in real life there is no tragedy without an element of humour, and vice versa.
Dickens understood this and allowed for a sacrilegious smile behind the most heartbreaking events.