Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Deliriously Dickens: "A sort of brilliance in the room"

The Biography Project, Day 11

If you aren't already sick of Charles Dickens, you will be before this year is over.  In this, the bicentennial of Boz's* birth, he is everywhere: books, BBC series marathons, bobblehead dolls, bumper stickers, bubble gum, bath salts, ballpoint pens, and breakfast cereal.  If you're not a fan--if you're still gagging from being force-fed ladles of Pip and Miss Havisham by an overzealous high school English teacher--then this coming twelvemonth will be the worst of times, not the best.

But if you are a Dickens devotee, come sit down next to me.  As should be apparent by now, I'm bonkers for Boz.

I've started my yearlong quest to read biographies of writers with Claire Tomalin's excellent new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.  And what a life it is, as brought to vivid, sparkling, intelligent and highly-readable life on Tomalin's pages.  In fact, I've been enjoying her style so much, I went ahead and purchased her biography of Thomas Hardy, which I hope to read later in The Biography Project.

Tomalin has a way of encapsulating Dickens' vibrancy in just a few well-chosen words.  Here, for instance, is how she brings the book's Prologue to a rousing finish:
He saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation--and sometimes sobs. He stored up his experiences and reactions as raw material to transform and use in his novels, and was so charged with imaginative energy that he rendered nineteenth-century England crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation--and sentimentality. Even one of his most hostile critics acknowledged that he described London "like a special correspondent for posterity." Early in his writing career he started to call himself "the inimitable": it was partly a joke with him, but not entirely, because he could see that there was no other writer at work who could surpass him, and that no one among his friends or family could even begin to match his energy and ambition. He could make people laugh and cry, and arouse anger, and he meant to amuse and to make the world a better place. And wherever he went he produced what, much later, an observant girl described as "a sort of brilliance in the room, mysteriously dominant and formless. I remember how everyone lighted up when he entered."

Tomalin begins by charting Dickens' family history of Men Who Cannot Hold Their Shillings.  John, Charles' father, was famously careless with the family income and spent months in debtor's prison while young Charley slopped blacking on boots in a factory straight out of one of his novels.  CD himself, despite his enormous income from writing, struggled occasionally with "money troubles," but we also see that it was a problem for his grandfather.  John's parentage is shadowy, but Tomalin suggests it may have been the politician Charles James Fox or the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan--both men who "gambled away several fortunes and borrowed from...friends without a thought of ever repaying any of them."

As is widely known, it was Charles Dickens' uncertain childhood of near-poverty and moving from house to house and town to town which greatly informed his later writing.  The turbulence also turned him into someone who seized the day and worked his ass off in a certain "toil today for we know not what tomorrow brings" mentality.  In 1827, when he was fifteen, Dickens got a job as a clerk in a law firm (which, as Tomalin points out, was just a fancypants way of calling him an "office boy").  Happy to leave his boot-blacking days behind him, he dressed as a dandy, attended the theater on a regular basis, and entertained the other clerks with his spot-on imitations of people he met in the streets, clients and other lawyers.  Tomalin writes:
He was always looking, listening to the voices and reacting to the dramas, absurdities and tragedies of London life.  From these early observations he built up a store of knowledge that would nourish his art for the rest of his life.

In these pages about the young impressionable Dickens, Tomalin sets the stage for the writer he will become, the force of nature who shaped and defined Victorian life for the rest of us almost 200 years in the future: "It's not easy to follow his day-to-day activities during the late 1820s and early 1830s because he was doing so much, taking in so much, spreading himself over so many activities, feeling everything with such intensity."

Tomalin closes out the first 50 pages of the biography--just before Dickens embarks on his writing career--with this keen observation:
He had spent seven years applying himself to master a series of different skills, always seeking to find a congenial way to earn a good income.  He had served in lawyers’ offices, taught himself shorthand, taken down law cases, reported the procedures of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, prepared himself for the acting profession and returned to writing about what he saw around him for magazines.  All were demanding activities and one by one he tried them, rejecting some, persevering with others.  Even when he did find the right path, there was still a long way to go before he could hope to establish himself professionally.  But his pursuit of various goals was so energetic, and he demonstrated such an ability to do many different things at once, and fast, that even his search for a career had its aspect of genius.

I'll be back later with another report on my progress through The Biography Project.  Meanwhile, I'm applying some lessons learned from Dickens to my own writing: work hard, let the ink flow without cease, and let the naysayers be damned.

Video bonus: Dickens' great-great-great granddaughter takes us on a tour of the Portsmouth home where he was born

*"Boz" is the nickname Dickens adopted for himself early in his career.  His first sketches as a reporter for the Monthly magazine were signed "Boz" and it was the name the public knew him by as the author of The Pickwick Papers until he came out from behind the pseudonym once the book became wildly popular.  He earned the nickname after his brother Augustus was born in 1827.  Tomalin writes: "Charles took to calling him Moses by the time he was a toddler...'Moses' became 'Boses' when spoken through the nose, and Charles was prone to colds in the head, so 'Boses' became 'Boz,' which in turn became the pen name adopted by him for his first published writing in 1834.

Portrait of Dickens by Daniel Maclise, 1839.


  1. David, you are making me feel incredibly guilty for not yet getting myself to the Dickens exhibit at the Morgan Library. Maybe this weekend....

  2. Do you know many people I would KILL to go see that exhibit?! (Okay, maybe not kill, but shove rudely aside...) Please *do* go, Erika, and be my proxy.

  3. Really enjoyed this post, David. Good stuff.