The Mystery of Charles Dickens by A. N. Wilson

A.N. Wilson’s new book is called The Mystery of Charles Dickens. By the time I finished it I wondered if it might have been better titled The Monstrosity of Charles Dickens. Wilson’s Dickens is a diminutive, whiskery, prematurely decrepit monster of lust, ego and demonic capitalistic energy. He is the presiding monster of his age; a man driven half-mad by the cruelty, smugness, competitiveness and hypocrisy of the 19th century.

Wilson opens in 1870 with 58-year-old Dickens dying on the floor of the dining room at Gad’s Hill, his country home in Kent. He is (although not for much longer) “one of the most famous human beings alive”. Thanks to an exploding population and the increasing spending power of the working classes, Victorian Britain offered for the first time in the history of human civilization “an audience for popular entertainment to be numbered in the millions”. Dickens was the beneficiary of that cultural shift. Before his death he was “pursuing, and achieving, a level of human popularity that was without parallel”.

That fame made death a logistical challenge. Wilson follows the biographer Claire Tomalin in speculating that Dickens suffered a stroke in the arms of his 31-year-old mistress, the actress Nelly Ternan, whom he was visiting at her house in Peckham. To avoid a scandal, the great man was bundled into a coach and deposited on the carpet at Gad’s Hill, where he could expire respectably. “One does not need to speculate on what brought on his seizure,” Wilson comments. “Clearly Dickens, the father of ten children, was a highly sexed man.”

Energy to Burn

The energy was more than sexual; it defined every aspect of his life. Dickens was a monster of work. As well as writing the enormous novels, he edited periodicals, gave speeches, acted in plays (Queen Victoria saw him in Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep), churned out journalism, toured America, ran a charitable home for fallen women and gave public readings of passages from his books.

Dickens’s wife, Catherine, a tragic figure in the writer’s personal tale.

How wicked much of that energy was. I find Dickens’s treatment of his wife, Catherine, almost unbearable to read about. He plotted to put her in a lunatic asylum, built a wall between his bedroom and hers, and when he eventually abandoned her, he separated her from all but one of their children. Dickens’s friends Frederick Evans and WH Wills refused to visit him at home because they “could not stand his cruelty to his wife”, especially his incessant and furious swearing at her in front of her children and the servants.

But it is the public readings, performed in front of audiences of thousands (including the “semi-literate if not actually the illiterate”), that strike me as the purest emanation of Dickensian energy. Lit by gas lamps and posed in front of a small red desk, Dickens would throw himself into an ecstatic frenzy. His performance of Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist had a “transformative, destructive physical effect”; his legs would tremble and his heart rate would soar as he found himself by his own admission transported almost out of his mind. Afterward he would lie on a sofa, drinking champagne, to recover.

Lit by gas lamps and posed in front of a small red desk, Dickens would throw himself into an ecstatic frenzy.

He performed the murder scene 28 times in the year before his death. Mania swept through towns when it got out that Dickens was to include it in that night’s reading. A society that gets its kicks out of watching a middle-aged man work himself into a state of ecstatic hysteria re-enacting the violent death of a young woman may strike modern readers as a pretty sick one.

Indeed, Wilson’s book is a brilliant denunciation of the sickness of Victorian England. He is especially vivid on the moral horror of a self-confident, capitalist society without a safety net for those at the bottom: the pregnant women dying on the doorsteps of workhouses; the native villages across the colonies torched by British soldiers; the prostitutes starving on the streets. The 19th century, Wilson writes, was “horrific in a way only the Victorians knew how to make worse”, with its “slums, treadmills, racist imperialism” as well as “their music halls, their usually unfunny humorous periodicals, their pantomimes and vaudevilles, their excruciating Gilbert and Sullivan …”

There was an abyss at the heart of Victorian society, and Dickens’s genius and monstrosity should be attributed to the fact that he, “alone of all the great figures of the Victorian scene, alone of all their great imaginative or intellectual giants, had known what it was to fall into the abyss”. Dickens’s poverty growing up, the misery of his time as a child laborer in Warren’s blacking factory, the pain of his mother’s rejection, all fueled a desperate, striving energy to escape the bottom.

Separating the Art from the Man

If Wilson uses one hand to shred the (admittedly hardly stellar) reputation of Dickens the man, he uses the other to apply a much-needed lick of gilt to the reputation of Dickens the novelist. The essence of his defense is found in his opening riposte to Oscar Wilde’s contention that “it would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”. Wilson points out that in The Old Curiosity Shop Little Nell dies offstage, and argues that “the scene where we find her dead body has astounding power, though sophisticated readers might be disturbed by the vulgarity of that power”.

The wider point is that Dickens tends to be willfully misunderstood by his detractors, and when they do understand him, they are unwilling to credit the disturbing artistic truth of what they find. Wilson writes about his astonishment when he was first told that Dickens’s novels were not realistic: “Up to that point, this idea had not occurred to me. Nearly all the grown-ups in my family and among the teaching staff appeared to me like Dickensian ‘characters’ repeating their leitmotifs and showing no inclination to escape self-parody.”

“It would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

I wasn’t surprised to find that Wilson agrees with the literary critics who believe that the evil, dwarfish Mr Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop is a sort of demonic self-portrait: it is only the most obvious way in which the wickedness and energy of Dickens the man is tied up in the genius of his novels. That entanglement is disturbing for Dickens’s fans because he is a writer you tend to love personally. Anyone who read the books as a child remembers the feeling of intimacy with that genial, melodramatic, moralizing voice. Indeed, the voice is so all-encompassing as to seem its own world — it is one all Dickens lovers feel they have lived in.

Wilson remembers escaping to that world as a respite from a childhood of “abject misery”. The books, he says, “offered me what felt like salvation”. My own childhood was unhappy in different ways from Wilson’s, but I recall long summer days and dark nights after school, camped out in Newcastle Central Library with The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend and David Copperfield and Great Expectations. And yes, they did offer a sort of salvation. Which, I suppose, is why I’ll love those books forever.