Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Dark Side of Dickens

The Biography Project, Day 38

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.


  1. Thanks for this, David. You know, I think it's more common than not for me to discover that my artistic idols are lousy people -- so much so that I can't let go of the old question: if it's so common for great artists to be terrible people, then does that mean that greatness in art actually requires a ruthlessness in every other area of life? And what does that mean for those of us who are in the arts but who have decided that it's important to be decent in our smaller, interpersonal world?

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  2. Great piece, David -- and I felt the same way reading Tomalin's book, squirming uneasily as a cherished author's life is held up to the cruel light of day. A truly divided character. That account by Dostoevsky (which has been questioned in some quarters as to whether it actually occurred, by the way) of his visit to Dickens was rather revealing, where Dickens said heroes and villains came from the two people inside him: “one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.” He was definitely in touch with both.

  3. I had no idea the man I've often looked up to for his penchant for social reform and his ability to address the trials of the era in such creative manner, was such a cold-hearted and cruel individual. He may have fallen a bit from his pedestal now, though his writing will remain as some of my favourite.

  4. "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
    -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

  5. Thank you! Enjoyed the piece and continue to enjoy the book. I have heard speculation that Dickens was bipolar. That would make sense of his bursts of energy-the 20 mile walks, the racing thoughts and the incredible number of tasks he was able to juggle at once. It might also explain why he had a superior attitude towards almost everyone in his life. Maybe he wasn't a "dick". Maybe he just needed meds.

  6. A long-time Dickens fan, I've been revisiting his novels and reading the ones I neglected (having mistakenly felt superior to Oliver Twist since I was a teenager). It's been great. So, I enjoyed this article, but it made me a little defensive, too.

    You write that "the truth of the Dickens household is much harder to swallow and taints the reputation of his literary works." Well, if it taints the reputation, it doesn't degrade the artistry, which is another matter. Isn't it time we stopped judging authors (and politicians and all kinds of public people) on the details of private lives glimpsed through the keyhole?

    The way I see it is that the sensibility that informs Dickens's novels isn't his alone. It's an amalgam of the author's inner life and that of his readers, as the author understood it. The novels aren't debased because the author couldn't live up to their ideals anymore than they would be by the personal failures of their readership.

    On a side note, it's funny that so many people desperately want to be writers and that writing courses flourish on the assumption that there's something improving in literary creativity when the mass of biographies suggest it can be a very unhealthy business. Maybe it's better to be a reader than a writer.

    Do you think Dickens lost out by not being able to read Charles Dickens?

    Last, can I recommend Christopher Hibbert's The Making of Charles Dickens? Great biography, concentrating on his sympathetic childhood and happy rise to fame.

  7. Great points, everyone.

    It is tough to separate the artist from the art, and talking about the wormy side of the writer can be devilishly fun. There's a danger in our addiction to literary gossip when dialogue about the Person threatens to shape the dialogue about the Work. I'm certainly guilty of this, as MTM pointed out. Was I too hard on Dickens? Possibly. But if I was, it's only because of the emotion of reading about this turbulent period of his life in Tomalin's biography. My love for his novels isn't diminished by my knowledge of his character (not *too* much anyway) and I still hold him in the highest regard for his energetic artistry and his bottomless capacity to market himself to his audiences. If Dickens was truly bipolar, as Mike Randall hints, then that would go a long way in explaining (though not excusing) some of his manic behavior.

    David Ebenbach also brings up an interesting topic for discussion: Can a writer produce great work without being a tortured artist? Can nice writers finish first? Or are addiction, abuse, adultery, and awful behavior part and parcel of the writer's trade? Perhaps we just know too much about each other in this age of instant communication and blabby social media--all of our foibles and follies laid bare in a single Tweet. Maybe we should take a cue from Cormac McCarthy: retreat and write. By his design, we know very little of McCarthy's personal life and the full glare of the spotlight always tends to shine on his works. Maybe, as MTM suggests, we should stop looking through the keyhole.

  8. I feel and share your pain on the genius that was Dickens the writer and the man who most could not admire. Weird as this may sound, my modern-day analogy is Tiger Woods. A long-time devoted fan of his brilliant athleticism and professional demeanor in public (for the most part), it has been a shock to see the sordid side of this man. I try not to judge, to forgive and forget, and focus on what these two men bring to their public. Thank you for the insightful and heartfelt review. I loved the google home page too :-)

  9. It is very important to remember that most people do not have the privilege,if that's the right word, of having a biography written after they have been cool in the grave for over one hundred years. You open with a rather unnecessarily course salvo and proceed to enjoy the less attractive side of Dickens with an ill conceived relish.You sound and in fact are sanctimonious.Would anyone, man, woman or child be without blemish once their secrets, and I would imagine even you have a few, have been raked out by the zealous Ms Tomalin. Dickens was a man,that's an unfashionable thing to be these days and he was a brilliant man. I am one who happens to believe that his private life should remain private. I admire M/s Tomalins book up to a point but I find myself wanting to read other opinions, particularly with regard to his wife. Women can appear kind and sweet yet be the very devil to live with. On the whole I've read better biography’s that Clair Tomalins though that is not to diminish what she has achieved but I don't consider she has had the last word on Dickens for a moment.

    1. It's been over a decade, but I want to respond. There were many reports (in private letters) made during CD's lifetime attesting to his cold-heartedness to his family. Thackery was appalled at CD's trying to institutionalize Catherine.. and remember that Thackery's wife was considered insane was institutionalized.

      Do we need to know all this Dickens' dirty laundry? I don't know. I think it does take a bit of sheen off of his stories. But I still find him to be a marvelous storyteller, and I enjoy his stories.

      People are complex, and it's okay to know that.

  10. Yes we should stop peeping through keyholes and break the doors down instead. High profile exposes like these lead to recognition, discussion and one hopes relief. All a bit late for Dickens's wife and children and any other peoples lives he wrecked but in some measure one hopes it will serve those suffering in silence at the hands of unrecognised, undiagnosed miscreants. It doesn't mean we may not continue to admire even love Dickenses works, these are probably the only sound product of the man, narcissistic bipolar victim of his own upbringing or just a plain a'hole or not.

  11. I did not mean to post as "Anonymous" (immediately above) but it seems it's the only way the post actually gets through?

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Thank you very much for your blog post, David. Yesterday evening I watched a TV show about Charles Dickens - Mrs Dickens' Family Christmas. {It runs 59 minutes and you can watch it over here: http://dai.ly/TFlAWJ } I was rather surprised to learn what I did about the so called great man, or rather, the great work from the man, as things turned out. I don't believe he is alone though in this estimation of mine. I am sure a great deal of the great artists of history were right royal maniacs in some or another way. I'm afraid that the Anonymous poster of November 6th will be terribly disappointed to know that Catherine Dickens' letters are freely available to read and considering the actions Charles took, seem to allude to his dark side. As for his private life. Well, that's questionable as to how sacrosanct that should indeed be. I think it is necessary to take a holistic view of anyone. Another example that comes to mind is Cicero who apparently was a "slumlord" according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Michael Parenti. Instead of a Great Man of Rome. Anyway, thanks again for your insightful post.

  14. There is also that absurd notion that anyone with an ounce of creativity is somehow lacking in the moral codes that the majority the great unwashed stricken of creativity live by, right down to even a sense of guilt and remorse?
    There are more sane people in the arts than not and more whackos at large than creative spirits. Yes Van Gogh cut off his ear but no he didn't cut off anyone else's. And Im sure he was sorry for it!

    To top it off unlike Vincent Charles Dickens sadly knew fully well what he was doing and was able to get away with it, in a time and place where the male of our species had all reasonable expectations of being able to do just that. These days he might've with any luck ended up having to pay through his 'rs for his calculated steadfast cruelty.

    I think myself that in the light of what we know his little cult of personality and our hero worshipping has simply run its course and we should feel no guilt when freely despising the man, deep disappointment yes. The literary equivalent of the horrible realisation that the "nice kindly man next door" has been keeping children jailed in the basement.

    That Dickens spun his now only apparent social commentary in often laborious and minutely detailed tales and characterisations now does sadly serves to make us wonder what further evils he enacted that are hiding in plain sight.

    Both the purveyor and creator of misery, surely not very different to many other men of his time.

  15. Don't forget that Charles Dickens also advocated genocide in India after the 1857 rebellion there. Great guy.

  16. If you study Narcissism, or NPD, all signs point to Dickens being a Narcissist...the devaluation and discard of his wife and children and impossible expectations he had of others to have the energy he had are all obvious signs. I've been studying NPD/Sociopathy for three years now and only recently began reading on Dicken's life. Wow, he is textbook...and the discarded family members in his wake are the hardest part to swallow. What do you say on Judgment Day, Mr. Dickens? Were you able to write your way out of that one?

    1. I agree with this. It wasn't enough to leave her. He had to devalue and dehumanize her. So sad when men take out their issues on the woman who tries to love them.

    2. NPD is a mental illness. I have a PD and often felt as though my brain hijacked my mind. I suspect that Dickens had moments of compunction, but I also think he couldn't help himself. His NPD was aggravated by depriving himself of sleep for years. Possibly the fact that he got away with horrendous abuse and victimising his children might be a sign of the times. English classism only made it worse.

  17. His mother was a piece of work. Fought against his leaving a hell-hole job as a child, and he knew it. This tainted his view of women in general. Not an excuse, just part of the puzzle.

  18. I cannot remember where I read it and I did jump to the creamy centre of this article, so if I missed this bit, forgive. I am sure I listened to a radio documentary which said he even made his wife buy some jewellery for his mistress the actress and she did it. I remember something about castigating her as mad and she may have even been in a mental institution as well. In fact did he try to keep her in longer somehow? Might be wrong. But let’s face it that is classic narcissist type behaviour, the bracelet and smear campaign in which he made her out to be mad. Hence no contact with the children. It’s an horrific story because women then had no choice but to have all these children, then he becomes wealthy enough to upgrade to an actress. Obviously after ten children, and the stress of a narcissist, she was more than likely no competition for a potentially gold digging actress. Actresses seemed to be very looked down on over men, as almost being akin to prostitution when you think the heir to Queen Vic, caused a stir in France with one and QV wasn’t impressed at all. The french love a scandal and indifference to him became a loveable royal rogue status but i digress. Back to narcopants, Money makes people more attractive if Dickens wasn’t looking well. I wonder if Nellie was targeting him because she was a narc too?.

    Just bear in mind my memory on this isn’t 100% but if anyone knows re bracelet/dickens committing wife to asylum or smearing her, I’m sure that a narcissistic smear campaign after callous discard were more markers.

    My grandfather snuck out of my mum’s funeral to steal her diamond wedding ring which would have reduced her estate by 90% between the 3 of us! That’s why i know a little of these berks.

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