It is a truth universally acknowledged that Charles Dickens the Writer was a genius but Charles Dickens the Man was an asshole.
I've now reached the point in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life where the nasty side of his nature can no longer be denied. In fact, at one point Tomalin warns the reader: "You'll want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858."
On this day, the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, it may seem a little sacrilegious to pause in our adoration of the writer whose works, the Economist once pronounced in 1852, "are [as] sure to be sold and read as the bread which is baked is sure to be sold and eaten." It is, in fact, a little troubling to me that his bicentennial fete arrives just as I'm reading about Dickens the dick.
If you prefer the "happy hearth and home" version of the novelist, you might head over to Google where you'll find a cartoonish representation of scenes from the books as today's "Google Doodle" on the main search page:
While we may best remember Dickens for the caricature of Mr. Micawber or the tear-sopped sentiment of Little Nell, the truth of the Dickens household is much harder to swallow and taints the reputation of his literary works. So, if you want to honor the joyous spirit of Dickens in your hearts, like Scrooge does with Christmas, then I urge you to look away now, as Tomalin suggests.
Make no mistake, my love for Dickens' novels runs deep and unshakable, and so it pains me to re-type these passages from Tomalin's biography in which he demonstrates an unforgivable callousness toward his children and an even more egregious attitude toward his wife Catherine. I'm not out to be a pedestal-smasher, but I can't go through this year-long Biography Project wearing blinders. I know there are even harder, idol-crushing revelations in the other biographies I plan to read (see: Carver, Raymond), but the dark side of Dickens is especially distressing to me, the lifelong worshipper at his feet.
Even though Dickens became one of our best chroniclers of domestic life in 19th-century England, perhaps he was not best suited for family life himself. Some writers are better off without the distractions of family (certainly not me--I cherish my wife and three children--but there are other artists who are more cut out for the solitude of an ivory tower). Dickens was so dedicated to his art that eventually everything else of consequence (paternal duties, husbandly fondness) was shoved to the sidelines. His imagination was a dynamo at the hot, humming center of the engine that drove him to write at such a rapid pace. In one letter to his friend Miss Coutts, he writes, "I have been so busy, leading up to the great turning idea of the Bleak House story, that I have lived this last week or ten days in a perpetual scald and boil." To touch Dickens the man at work was to be burned by his focused fever.
He was, Tomalin tells us, a man who often overreached his physical limits: "Dickens kept going by taking on too much. He knew no other way to live, and no day went by in which he did not stretch himself, physically, socially and emotionally."
He was, as Tomalin tells us in detail at agonizing length, a pretty rotten father to his ten children.
There was...the feeling that he had too many sons needing to be educated and launched into the world, boys he found noisy and difficult to communicate with, boys who seemed to be inheriting the worst characteristics of both sides of the family--indolence, passivity and carelessness with money. He disciplined them hard at home, insisting on tidiness and punctuality, gave them tasks and inspected their clothes, which led to "mingled feelings of dislike and resentment" and whispers of "slavery" and "degradation."
And there is this comment in a letter on the occasion of the birth of his son Plorn (full name Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens): "on the whole I could have dispensed with him." It is jaw-droppingly awful in nature. I don't care how strictly-run Victorian households were at the time, there is little excuse for such a cold-hearted statement.
But Dickens' affair with Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior, was the straw that would break his family's back. He first met Ellen, affectionately known as "Nelly," when she, her mother, and her sister helped him stage a production of The Frozen Deep, the melodrama he and Wilkie Collins wrote in 1857. The play is a fictionalized version of the doomed Franklin expedition to the arctic. On the stage, Dickens played the self-sacrificing explorer Wardour; Nelly was his lover waiting for him to return from the frigid north. When Nelly held Charles' head in her lap during the final overwrought scenes where his character is dying, it planted the seed for a love affair which would soon move off the stage into real life. As Tomalin writes: "It led to changes in every aspect of his life: the wing of a butterfly flapped, and a whole weather system was unsettled."
He separated from Catherine, treating her cruelly as he banished her from their home, and split their children's loyalty in the process. Until his death 12 years later he sent Catherine only three short letters, all in reply to inquiries from her, and did not even contact her when one of their sons died. It was an emotional earthquake that cracked the foundation of the home.
It also took a toll on Dickens physically, Tomalin notes:
He was always able to sparkle, charm and command admiration, but he aged in appearance now and began to look older than his years. The keen and lustrous eyes were sinking in their sockets and losing their brilliance, lines appeared across his brow and his cheeks were cut across by diagonal furrows. His hair thinned, his beard grizzled....And through these years bad health wore away Dickens' strength, neuralgia, rheumatic pains, unspecified but unpleasant and persistent symptoms he associated with bachelor life, trouble with his teeth and dental plates, piles. Then first his left foot, and then his right, took to swelling intermittently, becoming so painful that during each attack he became unable to take himself on the great walks that were an essential part and pleasure of his life. Presently his hand too was affected. The decline was resisted, denied, fought against, but not to be stayed.
Those "unspecified but unpleasant and persistent symptoms," by the way, were most likely gonorrhea, Tomalin speculates (with some compelling evidence). There was no hiding the physical and spiritual decline of Charles Dickens. As he neared the end of his life, his body was reaping what his spirt had sowed. A family friend who had known him since 1840 went to hear him read A Christmas Carol in November 1858 and found he had "withered and dwindled into a smaller man."
In that turbulent year when Tomalin urges us to look away, Dickens went half out of his mind:
His daughter Katey said, decades later, that there was misery at home and that he behaved like a madman, although at the time she found it impossible to protest. She saw her mother humiliated, ordered to call on the Ternan family at Park Cottage, and urged her to refuse, to no effect, and Catherine went. There is another story of an engraved bracelet Dickens had made for Nelly being wrongly delivered to Catherine.
Dickens' reputation was stained as his domestic troubles came to public notice (though the affair with Nelly would be a closely-guarded secret until well after his death). His shocked readers learned he was less Bob Cratchit and more Paul Dombey (the hard-hearted father of Dombey and Son). In a letter to a family friend, Dickens wrote, "Constituted to do the work that is in me, I am a man full of passion and energy, and my own wild way that I must go, is often--at the best--wild enough." I have to agree with Tomalin when she writes: "You can feel sorry for him as he struggles, but it is impossible to like what he did."
As I mentioned, my heart has been heavy as I've read these pages of the biography. Today, I'll be celebrating the genius not the asshole, but if there is any cake to be had, it will be dark chocolate with bittersweet frosting.