CHARLES DICKENS by Michael Slater, Reviewed by Deirdre David

By Michael Slater
(Yale, 2009) xvi + 696 pp.
Reviewed by Deirdre David on 2010-06-10.

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In March 1847, when his own Vanity Fair had just begun appearing in monthly numbers, Thackeray was stunned by the sheer brilliance of the fifth number of Dombey and Son. Marching into the printing-office of Dickens's publishers, he exclaimed, "There's no writing against such power as this - no one has a chance! Read that chapter describing young Paul's death: it is unsurpassed - it is stupendous!" In relating this well-known anecdote in his commanding biography, Michael Slater, wittingly or not, pinpoints the essential mystery that confronts anyone who writes about Dickens: from where did he derive the power to write as he did, to produce prose so stupendous and intimidating in its effects that Thackeray felt--for a time at least-- unable to write "against" it? (Fortunately, he overcame his feeling of inadequacy, finished Vanity Fair, and wrote much more beyond that).

In his lucid and meticulously documented exploration of just what created "the Inimitable," Slater necessarily confronts (and boldly faces down) a number of methodological questions faced by any literary biographer. How does the biographer avoid the reductive trap of presenting the fiction as transparently autobiographical (a particularly dangerous snare in the case of Dickens since so much of the fiction draws upon his early life)? How does one justify yet another biography of a writer whose life has been minutely mined and scrupulously sifted for the "Rosebud" moment that will reveal all? And if one has long been an authoritative figure in Dickens scholarship -- having, among other things, published Dickens on Women (1983), edited works such as Dickens on America and the Americans (1978), and overseen the editing of four volumes of Dickens's journalism-- what on earth can one do for an encore?

The inimitable success of Slater's biography springs from his superb and sustained emphasis upon Dickens as a writer. Through that emphasis, he deftly manages the challenges of literary biography. Skirting the seductive trap of settling for a simplistic transformation of fiction into autobiography, he insists that we see Dickens re-fashioning through language his already dramatically fictive life; he handsomely justifies the project by presenting Dickens first, foremost, and always, as a writer in his historical time, rather than as a biographical subject scrutinized solely through a particular interpretive lens; and by meticulously examining all of Dickens' writing, Slater may be said to outdo himself and his record of extraordinary scholarship. Slater shows us that the court reporting, the journalism, the sketches, the political essays, the Christmas stories, the letters, and the editing are always "composed," all produced by "a master of language seeking to achieve particular effects - comic, humorous, pathetic, indignation-rousing, and so on" (5).

Almost immediately, Slater tackles what he terms "the problematic nature of attempting any sort of objective account of Dickens's life during 1822-24" (5) -- the years in which the Dickens family moved from Chatham to London, when John Dickens and his family went into the Marshalsea, and when Charles began his thirteen hellish months at Warren's blacking-factory. As Slater correctly observes, we have nothing against which to check the transformation of these months into David Copperfield's experience and, more significantly, into the "strongly emotional account" by Dickens himself in the autobiographical fragment written when he had long been vividly aware of himself as "the Inimitable." Yet more than a kind of Gradgrind reconciliation of fact with fiction, what matters to Slater is what Thackeray termed the "stupendous" use of language whereby Dickens makes us feel the searing humiliation of Warren's, the wrenching separation from his family, and the brutal stop to his schooling. In Slater's incisive understanding of Dickens's life, "the outstanding literary craftsmanship" of the autobiographical fragment counts as much as what it describes.

Through Slater's elegant weaving of biographical detail with analysis of Dickens's early writings, we witness the rapid transformation from journalist to novelist: from two years as a junior clerk with the solicitors Ellis and Blackmore, through the free-lance shorthand reporting at Doctors Commons and the career-making emergence of Boz's newspaper sketches of London life, and then to the sensational popular success of Pickwick and Sam Weller. These early chapters fascinatingly depict a young man in full and dazzling flower. We see Dickens indulging in what he called "amateur vagrancy" on the London streets, working on an operetta, beginning Pickwick as a kind of country counterpart to the racy urban Boz of London life, having his heart broken by Maria Beadnell, and signing contracts with Bentley to write two novels. In sum, through his matchless knowledge of Dickens's early writings, Slater brilliantly re-colors, as it were, the familiar portrait of what he terms a young man in possession of "boundless confidence in his own powers as a writer" (95).

By 1840, Dickens had become a major celebrity, a grand social figure living in a large house in Devonshire Terrace with a family that increased itself almost yearly, and feeling himself financially encumbered by his parents and his three brothers. Apart from his always-healthy curiosity, Dickens realized that a proposed trip to America would be a moneymaker, but as Slater acknowledges, all of Dickens biographers recognize that the 1842 trip "profoundly affected his sense of his own identity both as man and as artist" (194). The initial glory soon yielded to distaste for the manner in which he and Catherine were constantly on display - whether at "levees" or in the gossip columns of those sensationalist newspapers he excoriated in his American Notes. But the American experience honed an emerging commitment to political activism through polemical journalism, and almost immediately upon his return to England he wrote a long letter to the Morning Chronicle denouncing opposition to a Mines and Collieries Bill aimed at stopping the underground employment of women and children under ten. One of the great pleasures in Slater's book is a discovery (or rediscovery for many readers, perhaps) of how Dickens's deep commitment to examination of "the Condition of England" is to be found not only, say, in Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and Hard Times but also in a lifetime of political journalism. After finishing Hard Times in 1854, for example, he wrote over the next six months for Household Words, Slater tells us, "no fewer than seven articles lambasting governmental negligence and folly" (377) -- all this while editing his magazine, chivvying its contributors, and contemplating Little Dorrit.

Almost eight years later, Dickens was "leading three distinct lives" (471). First, he was the public figure: the celebrated author and reader, clever playwright, and generous supporter of indigent or aging fellow-writers through blazing performances in amateur theatricals; second, he was the genial, hospitable head of a somewhat peculiarly organized household at Gad's Hill (Catherine by now having been written out of the picture, as it were, and her function as domestic manager allotted to her sister Georgina); lastly he was "the discreet friend" of the acting Ternan family - Frances and her two daughters, Maria and Ellen. Faced with a lack of irrefutable evidence about the exact nature of Dickens's relationship with Ellen Ternan, Slater does his best with what remains for the biographer: oblique references-- in his letters to Wilkie Collins-- to "the Patient" (an allusion to the injuries Ellen received, along with Dickens, in the Staplehurst railway accident); details of real estate transactions conducted in the Ternan's name; and of course what Slater terms "an attention-grabbing opening" to his last will -- a rather modest legacy of one thousand pounds to Miss Ellen Lawless Ternan. Slater pays careful attention to Dickens's own painful narrative of marital unhappiness (expressed in letters to close friends) but he scrupulously avoids speculation about Nelly, a sign of the extreme care he takes, overall, in his comprehensive examination of Dickens's life. His biography rests on the best of evidence: the sketches, the letters, the polemical essays, the editing, the reports of his readings, the "mems" for his novels - and, of course, the novels themselves.

If anything eludes Slater it must be a definitive identification of the origin of what we can only term Dickens's "genius." Yes, there's the blacking-factory, the improvident father, the careless mother, the uncertainty about social class, but none of it fully explains why we weep for Amy Dorrit and laugh ourselves silly at the Crummles family. Slater comes very close, though, when he highlights Dickens's "life-long insistence on the sheer hard work, the ‘earnestness' (to use his favourite word) required of all true artists no matter how great might be their natural genius" (542). Charles Dickens generously and with great affection allows us to see that "earnestness" working full-time in the service of "genius."

Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English, Temple University and the author most recently of Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) and the co-editor with Eileen Gillooly of Contemporary Dickens (Ohio UP, 2009). She is currently at work on a biography of Olivia Manning, the twentieth-century British writer best known for her novels set in World War II.

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