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A Reading Life

The talented Mr. Dickens

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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Henry James called Charles Dickens “the greatest of superficial novelists’’ and went on to write words so shocking that, when I came across them, I gasped: “It were, in our opinion,’’ he declared in high subjunctive, “an offence against humanity to place Mr. Dickens among the greatest novelists.’’ This is the sort of unhinged statement you might expect from a man who, as W. Somerset Maugham put it, merely “observed life from a window, and too often was inclined to content himself with no more than what his friends told him they saw when they looked out of a window.’’

I will happily grant James the element of the “superficial,’’ for few writers have been such assiduous collectors of empirical detail, surface appearance, and pure spectacle as Dickens; on the other hand, none has transfigured it with such genius. His pen may not have been what James would have liked: a precision instrument, probing tool, or dissecting blade; but it was a mighty conjurer of comic surrealism and terrifying grotesquerie. It could doodle a perfect little idiosyncrasy, etch a tortuous cityscape, or map a broad vista. It bestowed the attributes of every sort of commodity upon people and imparted personality to buildings, furniture, food, and clothing. Indeed, the very thought of such entities as Captain Cuttle’s glazed hat in “Dombey and Son’’ or young Sloppy’s buttons in “Our Mutual Friend’’ causes my soul to effervesce with ridiculous joy.

A heroic and intrepid walker, Dickens covered miles every day, roaming the streets and warrens of London: An “amateur vagrancy,’’ he called it, during which his “clutching eye’’ harvested scenes, incidents, and quirks to be later transformed on the page. Indefatigable and galvanic, he was thoroughly engaged with the world around him, his writing both drawing from it and drawing him into it further. What that really meant in its fullest dimension can be seen in Michael Slater’s magnificent biography, “Charles Dickens’’ (Yale, $35). This is the third biography of Dickens I’ve read. The first is the generally affectionate one by his friend John Forster, published a couple of years after its subject’s death. The second is by Peter Ackroyd, an author so Dickensian himself that his book represents something like a transmigration of souls. And now I have Slater’s, a work that reveals in minute and telling detail the role that writing played in Dickens’s life, especially the role played by the extraordinary amount he produced outside his novels: parliamentary reporting, sketches, vignettes, feuilleton, plays, verse, inspirational stories, Christmas tales, travel writing, and countless polemical, philanthropic, and advocatory pieces. Slater shows, too, with revelatory specifics, how Dickens’s ferocious engagement with the social and economic condition of England, with events, and with his surroundings became incarnate in his writing, not only in the occasional pieces, but in the great novels themselves. He also makes clear that Dickens’s most vital relationship in life was the one he had with his readers and that if you do not see this in all its diversity and zeal, you do not see the man.

The formidable minuteness of the record that Slater sets before us - the timing and contractual obligations of overlapping projects and assignments, the author’s movements and associations, his monetary and personal arrangements, and so on - would be an obstructive thicket were his control not so nimble, his eye for pertinence so sharp, his command of the telling quotation so adept, and his sense of predicament so astute. Just to take one instance: We see Dickens taking on a frightening number of writing projects; being celebrated as the successor to Walter Scott; then fearing for himself the fate that had been Scott’s, “writing himself to death,’’ in Slater’s words, “in a desperate attempt to keep up the sales of his books.’’ Rounding this off, Slater gives us a glimpse of Dickens’s peculiarly animistic feeling for the poignancy of clothes. Describing an exhibit he’d seen of the last clothes worn by Scott displayed in a “vile glass case,’’ Dickens mourns the hat “tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering hither and thither of his heavy head.’’

Slater’s meticulous account does not diminish the relevance of the well-known events and circumstances of Dickens’s life: his father’s improvidence, the blacking factory, his hopeless first love, the death of Mary Hogarth, his cruel cutting-off of his wife, and his besotted, obsessive relationship with Ellen Ternan among them. But it also gives proper and enlarged emphasis to his wide and intense engagement with the world and lets us see the great dialectic between it and his work. Hugely informative and written with a calm, generous spirit, this is a tremendous contribution to our appreciation of Dickens.

In a crowded, tightly bunched field, Dickens is my favorite 19th-century writer, beating Austen, Eliot, and Trollope in a controversial (in my own mind) photo finish, and he is also one of my least favorites in one dreadful respect: his bouts of mawkishness. There’s nothing the Victorians loved so much as a good cry; and nothing amplified that pleasure so much as combining it with uplift; and nowhere is the whole sorry business so evident as in Dickens’s Christmas stories. Or so it seems, because try as I might - and I have, again and again - I have never actually been able to finish any of them except “A Christmas Carol.’’ The best that can be said of that work is that at least it is better than any adaptation I’ve seen, and for that reason I recommend actually reading it. It has just appeared again, along with the other four Christmas books, in an elegant Everyman’s Library edition (“A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books,’’ $18). It comes with a kindly introduction by Margaret Atwood - who also seems only to have read the title story.

Terrible as these little books are, they do contain some wonderful passages. I leave you now with a perfect example of Dickens’s comic vision in the shape of a minor character from “The Chimes,’’ one Mr. Tugby, a porter, seized here by uncontrollable mirth: “He chuckled until he was black in the face; and had so much ado to become any other colour, that his fat legs took the strangest excursions into the air. Nor were they reduced to anything like decorum until Mrs. Tugby had thumped him violently on the back, and shaken him as if he were a great bottle.’’

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.

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