Review of A. N. Wilson's The Mystery of Charles Dickens
It’s not that A. N. Wilson dislikes Charles Dickens, it’s just that he finds him distinctly unnerving. Behind the noisy cavalcade of Dickensian spectacle in all its ornate grotesquery Wilson espies its creator, an altogether more perplexing individual than his public persona might suggest— one who, in certain significant respects, was far murkier than even his most cryptic characters. That Wilson is both fascinated by and wary of his biographical subject gives The Mystery of Charles Dickens a distinctly Piranesian frisson, as the reader is led through the echoing labyrinths of the novelist’s inner landscape. As to what ‘the mystery’ itself actually was, Wilson investigates it over seven chapters, each of which offers up a different facet of the central conundrum. In scenes redolent of the manner in which the Ghost of Christmas Past presented Ebenezer Scrooge with episodes from his own personal history, Wilson transports us to key events in Dickens’ life in an attempt to figure out this perplexing genius.
Rather than begin at the beginning, Wilson begins at the end: the 8th of June 1870, on which Charles Dickens suffered the stroke that would kill him within twenty-four hours. At the time the accepted account was that the great novelist had spent his last few hours at home working on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, before being taken ill in the evening. However, Wilson is not the first person to cast doubt on this version of events. Was Dickens in fact (as Claire Tomalin has previously speculated) actually at the home of his long-term mistress, Ellen Ternan, only to be covertly brought back to his official residence, Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, in order to prevent any posthumous scandal? If this theory and Ternan’s role as the great novelist’s secret lover are hardly breaking news, what makes Wilson’s version of events so intriguing is the manner in which he presents the evidence in such a way as to draw the reader in, by selecting little details and anecdotal oddments that shed light on larger issues in his subject’s life. For instance: why did Dickens’ scrupulous sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth, only find six pounds, six shillings and threepence in his pockets in the hours after he died, even though he had cashed a cheque for £22 the day before and had apparently had no reason to spend any of it before he suffered his cerebral haemorrhage? Did he in fact use the missing cash on travel expenses to visit Ternan on his last full day of life, and give her some housekeeping money? Could this explain the shortfall? If so, it throws an intriguing light on Victorian propriety and the lengths to which our top-hatted and tightly-corseted ancestors would go to in order to keep up appearances. As a curious little coda to this tale of possible clandestine goings-on, it seems that Ternan in later life—now Mrs Robinson, a clergyman’s wife — was involved in some more genteel skulduggery, giving her age on the 1881 census as twenty-eight when she was, in fact, forty-two.
If Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan has for some years now been recognised as an important factor in understanding the person behind the public persona, the novelist’s traumatic childhood has attracted even more biographical musing about his psychological preoccupations. Accounts of the young Dickens being forced to work in the dreaded Warren’s Blacking Factory in order to contribute much-needed funds to the family income, whilst painfully aware that he was capable of better things, have —over decades of retelling— become imbued with the kind of heightened pathos worthy of Victorian melodrama at its most bilious. Nevertheless, this early experience does seem to have been a genuinely traumatic period for the boy who clung to memories of a once-idyllic childhood spent in Chatham and Rochester before his father’s mounting debts precipitated the family’s relocation to London, and eventually the old man’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea. According to Wilson, this seismic fall from grace at such a tender age engendered in Dickens something of a divided self, which would manifest time and again in his characters. If it is true that Dickens had a troubled psyche, it certainly served him well in creating some of the most memorable characters in English literature, the best of them imbued with a disquieting, unresolved quality which perhaps echoed their creator’s deep-seated emotional ambiguities.
It seems that for most of his life Dickens kept the remembrance of these childhood hardships to himself. Wilson does, however, highlight an anecdote told by Dickens’ son Henry which may indicate that, towards the end of his life and in a period of illness, the novelist was finally inching nearer to unburdening himself of these unhappy early memories. It was Christmas 1869, and with his family gathered around him, Dickens —an enthusiastic devotee of Victorian parlour games— suggested that they play a memory game in which everyone had to memorise and recite an ever-growing string of words or phrases. Dickens’ most notable contribution to this jolly diversion was “Warren’s Blacking, 30, Strand!” accompanied, as his son remembered, by “an odd twinkle in his eye and a strange inflection in his voice.” At the time none of his family realised the significance of this outburst or the way in which this seemingly unremarkable address formed a forbidding penumbra around their father’s imagination.
One figure in Dickens’ childhood who seems to have made those distressing early years in London considerably worse with her cold indifference towards him was his mother, Elizabeth. According to John Forster, the novelist’s close friend and first biographer, Dickens quite simply hated her. Indeed, as far as Dickens was concerned, his mother’s distinct lack of maternal feeling towards him was an important factor in his being sent to work at the blacking factory in the first place. The novelist’s revenge, as Wilson describes it, was to memorialise her in the several emotionally distracted or befuddled women found in his novels, such as (for example) the fussily irrelevant Mrs Nickleby whose tedious, rambling observations resembled Elizabeth Dickens’ own disjointed chatter in the latter stages of her premature senility.
If this harbouring of a profound animosity towards his mother might be said to have had understandable causes, Dickens’ treatment of another important female in his life, namely his wife Catherine, is an altogether much more problematic matter — so much so, indeed, that Wilson explicitly dubs the chapter that deals with it “The Mystery of the Cruel Marriage.” As with the tale of Ellen Ternan, here again the story of the Dickens’ marriage is by no means a revelation to those who take more than a passing interest in the novelist’s life, but its retelling in Wilson’s hands serves to richly re-focus and re-emphasise what a desperately bleak relationship it eventually turned into. The photograph of Catherine (or Kate) Dickens which opens the chapter shows her as a stout, bonneted Victorian matron displaying, or so it seems, a desperately sad, empty expression. But perhaps that is to read too much into the image, in the knowledge that here was a woman who —after twenty-two years of marriage to a world-famous, much-loved novelist to whom she bore ten children— in 1858 was unceremoniously banished from their bedroom and then, in short order, their family home. Described as a “voluptuous, blue-eyed brunette” when Dickens had first met and courted her, Kate seems to have been a pliant, dutiful presence during his dazzling rise to prominence. Was her inability to keep pace with her husband’s infernal energy and gregarious nature a long-standing irritant to him even before (allegedly) a bracelet that he had bought for Ternan was delivered to Kate by mistake, thus revealing his extra-marital affair? There are accounts, two years before the separation, of close friends declining to visit the Dickens household because “they could not stand his cruelty to his wife,” which included “swearing at her in the presence of guests, children and servants.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, such tirades saw Kate sink into “indescribable lassitude,” thus giving Dickens further ammunition with which to question her competence as a wife and mother. Having, by 1857, structurally divided their bedroom into two so that she could no longer gain access to him, in the following year Dickens instigated a formal separation (along the way making enquiries about whether his wife might be committed to an asylum) which resulted in Kate moving out of the family home and into a modest residence where her children were forbidden to visit her. At this point in his life Dickens seems to have been gripped by extraordinarily narcissistic urges or, as one of his daughters recalled, “My father was like a madman when my mother left him. This affair brought out all that was worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.” This kind of thoughtless egotism had also reared its head a few years earlier when the novelist received a letter from one Mrs Winter, the erstwhile Maria Beadnell, Dickens’ first love who had broken off relations with him due to his youthful lack of prospects. Regardless of his wife’s thoughts on the matter, Dickens was eager to meet his once-beloved Maria again —only to be dismayed to find her no longer the petite, fresh-faced beauty on whom he had once doted. Such startlingly insensitive behaviour on Dickens’ part might well have instilled in Kate a deep-seated resentment towards her husband for all the mental abuse that she had suffered from him. Although, having said that, as she lay on her deathbed in 1879 this much-mistreated woman instructed her daughter Katy to donate her letters from Dickens to the British Museum “that the world may know he loved me once.” That same daughter would later come to the firm conclusion that “my father did not understand women.”
Turning from Dickens, the psychologically scarred, unfaithful domestic tyrant, Wilson then goes in search of Dickens, the beneficent philanthropist and tireless proselytiser for social justice. As with pretty much everything to which he put his mind, Dickens’ efforts in this regard were characterised by a prodigious zest for the task in hand, whether “putting on theatrical performances for charity, speechifying for hospitals or impoverished actors, prison-visiting, campaigning for the establishment of schools for the poor or indulging in innumerable acts of private kindness and generosity.” In short, the same man who turned his wife out of their home because…well, simply because she got on his nerves, could also be an impassioned —albeit somewhat imperious— saviour of the economically disadvantaged. With his involvement in the setting-up and running of Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, Dickens joined the ranks of those prominent Victorian public figures who took an interest, just the right side of prurient, in the plight of ‘fallen women.’ Having befriended the fabulously wealthy Angela Burdett Coutts, scion of the famous banking family, Dickens proposed to her the establishment of a women’s refuge whose inmates, living under a strict regime of self-improvement, could be rehabilitated with a view to them eventually being sent to Australia and there happily (or otherwise) married off. There are several accounts of how a few of these, invariably young, women found it difficult to abide the spartan regime and sanctimonious atmosphere in which they were expected to shed the vices which had got them into trouble in the first place. Dickens seems to have been particularly angered by instances of absconding on the Sabbath, the miscreant invariably jumping over the Cottage wall in her Sunday best. However, despite his —no doubt sincerely meant— charitable disposition Dickens was, as Wilson points out, “distrustful of philanthropy, and in his novels the do-gooders are generally seen as absurd if not positively malign,” especially those who “added religion to the mixture”: certainly the bible-black-garbed dissembling man-of-the-cloth and the charitable pantomime dame with monomaniacal tendencies make telling appearances in his novels. What such characters seem to have embodied was the manner in which influential sections of Victorian society ostensibly sought to cure society’s ills by adhering to a superficial code of hypocritical benevolence. Wilson aptly sums up his subject’s social and artistic humanism when he describes Dickens as “not, primarily, an economist or a philanthropist; he was a great imaginative artist, responding to ills and abuses that were beyond his control, torn this way and that between naturally libertarian, individualist instincts and the sheer scale of the desperation and need all around him.”
That one of Dickens’ favourite means of raising money for charitable causes was to stage-manage and act in amateur theatricals (one of these being The Frozen Deep, in which he acted alongside and fell in love with Ellen Ternan) bears witness to his natural showmanship. In his novels, this performative nature is readily apparent in his authorial voice. More so than with many other novelists, it always seems as if Dickens is at our ear, “narrating events with his characteristically rich mannerisms.” For Vladimir Nabokov it was a matter of surrendering to that voice, for it is “the enchanter [who] interests me more than the yarn spinner or the teacher.” By all accounts the enchanter was much in evidence once Dickens had embarked on his public readings, during which packed audiences were reportedly mesmerised by his ability to ‘become’ his characters in all kinds of moods and passions. The familiar story is that these readings and their all-consuming theatricality, particularly the novelist’s demonic recreation of the death of Nancy at the hands of Bill Sykes, proved so exhausting as to speed Dickens towards a relatively early death. In another fascinating excursus, Wilson sheds a curious light on what these performances meant to Dickens even after ill-health had forced him to give them up— he was apparently glimpsed by one of his household staff acting out the death of Nancy alone in a quiet corner of his garden. As much as this might indicate the extent to which Dickens was obsessed by his own fictional world, it also speaks of a certain pathological vitality of the kind that led him to admit to his friend, Forster, “I am incapable of rest. Much better to die, doing.”
That Dickens the author did, in effect, ‘die, doing’ is the subject of Wilson’s penultimate chapter, focusing as it does on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This last unfinished novel, with its storyline initially swimming into view amidst the hallucinatory atmosphere of an opium den, is an altogether more ominous affair than the vibrant romps of his earlier career. The storyline features “double-selves, divided personalities” prominently and, as such, allows Wilson to revisit and further elaborate on his portrayal of Dickens as a “cauldron of self-contradiction and self-reproach, a bubbling confusion of moral centres.” Added to such hectic psychological cross-currents, Wilson introduces the idea of animal magnetism as being not only the key plot contrivance in Edwin Drood, but also a significant factor in unlocking the whole “mystery of Charles Dickens.” Animal magnetism (or Mesmerism as it came to be known, with reference to its earliest advocate, Franz Mesmer) as the study and practice of exerting a powerful hypnotic influence over a pliable subject, has several points of correspondence with Dickens’ life and art; here was someone who was able on the page and at public readings to consistently entrance his audience and, in his private life, subjugate his family to his will. Having witnessed a mesmerist’s performance for himself during a visit to America in 1842, Dickens soon found out that he too had the ability to exert ‘magnetic’ powers over others. In 1844, during the course of an Italian journey, Dickens befriended Emile de la Rue, a Swiss banker, and his “small, beautiful, child-like, nervous English wife” who seems to have been suffering from a number of psychosomatic maladies. So much time did the novelist spend behind closed doors with Mme de la Rue attempting to cure her of these same maladies by means of his mesmeric gifts, that Mrs Dickens (whom, at that point, Dickens was still tolerating) became especially agitated and, so it was said, ‘unreasonable.’ In the end, however, Dickens does not seem to have been able to use his healing powers on himself —he is described by Wilson as “exhausted, ill and dosing himself frequently with laudanum” during the planning and writing of Edwin Drood. As far as Dickens’ work on this last novel is concerned, Wilson detects signs of the careworn author’s reliance on some distinctly creaky plot devices, going so far as to claim that “the writing is flat, the story is going nowhere, and any reader by the time they have reached Chapter 22 of the story [the last completed chapter] would have had the sense that the author had in fact already died.” A little harsh, perhaps, particularly for those who relish Edwin Drood for its fustily malevolent ambience as well as the opportunity that it gives readers to speculate on one of literature’s most famously unresolved whodunnits.
“Just before six in the evening he gave a deep sigh, and a single tear rose to his right eye and trickled down his cheek. Dickens was dead.” Thus Wilson describes his subject’s last moments in tones similar to how the novelist himself might have bid farewell to one of his central characters, after which the homage segues into a pastiche of the famous opening lines of A Christmas Carol: “Dickens was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…Old Dickens was dead as a doornail.” And so he was, though whether he was also despatched post-haste from his mistress’s boudoir to his official residence at Gad’s Hill will probably never be known.
Despite the novelist’s own wish to be buried in a small churchyard at Shorne on the edge of the marshes immortalised in Great Expectations, his remains ended up alongside the great, good, and questionable in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. After the funeral service the grave was left open for a time to allow, in the words of the Abbey’s incumbent spiritual leader Dean Stanley, “thousands of people” to file past, a crowd made up of “every class of the community…dropping in flowers, verses and memorials of every kind, and some of them quite poor people, shedding tears,” a scene which prefigures G. K. Chesterton’s contention that Dickens “did what no English statesman, perhaps has really done; he called out the people. He was popular in a sense of which we moderns have not even a notion.”
He was also, as Wilson convincingly shows, a volatile combination of embittered waif, philanthropic activist, adulterer, manic actor and supremely gifted writer. The real ‘mystery’ of Charles Dickens lurks somewhere in between all these mercurial guises. --Mark Jones