|About the Book|
Author Jane Smiley offers brevity and astute analysis in this biography of Charles Dickens from the Penguin Lives series. Its brevity (212 pages) will relieve apprehensive readers familiar with Dickenss hefty novels (DAVID COPPERFIELD runs over 800 pages). Her analysis is even more welcome. It pairs themes in his books with concurrent events in his life. What emerges is a conflicted man whose contradictions are not easily reconciled.Smiley is critical of the lax usage of the adjective “Dickensian.” She argues that Dickens was constantly rethinking old themes and evolving throughout his long career. ”Dickenss works are often seen to be all of a piece — he did a certain sort of thing, or he employed a certain sort of technique, from the beginning to the end of his career. He was Dickensy. In fact, though, Dickenss novels, stories, plans and letters show that his ideas and his worldview were dynamic, not static....His novels propose different solutions to the dilemma of incompatibility while his analysis of the dilemma gets more and more complex and refined.” (p.204)The most prominent theme of course is his concern with social ills. The transformation of England from a rural to an urban society magnified poverty, crime, lack of sanitation, housing shortages and class disparity. The workhouse in OLIVER TWIST and debtors prison in DAVID COPPERFIELD are examples of societys disposal of those afflicted. Respectability is another theme. Dickens was secretive about his own unrespectable origins and the painful memories of his early life. His adulthood looks like a relentless pursuit of the ideal of Victorian respectability. He married young. Catherine Hogarth was 21 and Charles Dickens was 24 when they married in 1836. Their first child was born the following year and the family quickly expanded to ten children in close succession.Dickens was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He believed in volunteerism and charitable organizations rather than a government managed social safety net. He was a tireless contributor and fundraiser for charitable causes. With Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy banking heiress, he worked to improve Urania College, one of the “ragged schools” that existed to warehouse unwanted children. He was also an active supporter of a home for reformed prostitutes. In DAVID COPPERFIELD Dickens focuses his critique on individuals rather than institutions. The Micawbers end up in debtors prison as much due to Mr. Micawbers spendthrift ways as his inability to find employment. The Victorian conception of marriage seems bad only because of the Murdstoness joyless self-righteousness and rigid regimentation. Salem House is a poor excuse for a school primarily because of Mr. Creakle. He pays the masters poorly, he fires Mr. Mill when learning of his mothers “disgraceful” poverty, he humiliates Traddles relentlessly, toadies to Steerforth, and disciplines the students with beatings.Smiley points to the Crimean War (1853-1856) as a turning point in Dickenss optimism. LITTLE DORRIT (1857) was initially titled “Nobodys Fault,” and Smiley views it both as an attack on middle-class values and a rebuke of an incompetent, indifferent and irresponsible ruling class. ”Dickenss vision of Little Dorrit is not only an exceptionally dark view of human nature- it is specifically a dark view of British society and of the effects of British social and economic structure upon British citizens.” (p.125)Dickenss attitude toward respectability was likewise ambivalent. The marital bliss promised by Victorian conventionality failed to materialize. Catherine had a loving, sedate temperament and was both compliant and fruitful. Dickens wanted more. Intellectual companionship? Artistic accomplishment? Smiley characterizes it as an oscillation between virginal and maternal figures. In DAVID COPPERFIELD the conflict is played out in the contrast between Dora and Agnes. In life, his ambivalence was played out in a succession of experiments in female relationships: An expanded family circle which included Catherines younger sister Georgina who was only 17 when she died a year after his marriage to Catherine- a brief infatuation with 18 year old Christiana Weller, a gifted pianist, in 1844- a dabbling in hypnosis with a Madame de la Rue the following year, a meeting in 1855 with an old flame, Maria Beadnell Winter- and finally, his liaison with the 18 year old actress Ellen Ternan in 1857. The institution of marriage, at least in its Victorian form, was never suitable to Dickenss temperament. ”He expected absolute order and meticulous cleanliness, quiet when he was working, and boisterous fun, with many visitors when he was ready for it. He was, in short, something of a domestic tyrant, whose sensitivity to the needs of his wife (toward whom he still seems to have felt considerable affection at this point), and children (in whose lives he always interfered) was minimal.” (p.24) In true Victorian fashion, he repressed his dissatisfaction, at least in the beginning, and filled his time with long solitary walks, extensive travel, evenings out socializing, and of course his editing and writing.As a combination of artist, agent and impressario, Dickens was ill-suited for Victorian conventionality. His flamboyant attire was criticized as déclassé. His search for interesting names took him through cemetaries. His curiosity led him through tenements and red-light districts. He had a sharp ear for mimicry and great dramatic talent, which he applied in public readings that elevated him from author to celebrity and forged an energizing collaborative connection with his audience more comparable to the performance of a stand-up comedian than an author on book tour. Friends urged him to desist from these performances on the grounds that they were undignified. Birth, temperament and talent condemned him to an outsider status, the very vantage point that honed his understanding of class differences and human nature.Dickens was creatively active between 1833 when his first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published and his death in 1870 while he was working on the novel EDWIN DROOD. Smiley views his career as a bridge between the romanticism of Sir Walter Scott (one of Dickenss famorite authors) and later Victorian authors. It is easy to forget that he began his career four years before Victoria was crowned. Smiley notes that there was a big difference between the early and later Victorian years.Inevitably, readers and critics are drawn to view Dickenss work in a historical context. Yet, Smiley highlights a modern sense of Dickens. He was outraged to learn that his works were being freely printed in America without payment of any royalty to him. Despite his success he always harbored a sense of financial insecurity. Through DAVID COPPERFIELD his observations of Parliament could have been written today: ”Night after night, I record predictions that never came to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.” (p.606 of DAVID COPPERFIELD) The creepiness of characters like Uriah Heep continues to feed a psychological longing for memorable villains. The lively humor in Dickenss prose continues to entertain and delight readers today.I came to this book familiar in detail only with DAVID COPPERFIELD, as obvious from the examples I have cited. Smiley covers the full spectrum of Dickenss work,making this a book with appeal to both the novice and the knowledgeable reader.