- The Mysteryof Charles Dickens, by A.N. Wilson. Atlantic Books. $39.99.
A.N. Wilson is an English essayist and journalist, as well as a novelist and award-winning biographer of literary figures.
In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, rather than adopting a cradle-to-grave format, Wilson focuses on six key aspects of Dickens' life to reveal his creative genius and the reasons for the enduring popularity of his novels.
For Wilson, Dickens, of all the great novelists, is the most mysterious, creating in his novels "an alternative universe" in which "he amused or shamed his readers into recognizing that this universe was uncommonly like their own".
Wilson begins with the mystery of Dickens' death in 1870 at the age of 58, "exhausted. His face was ravaged. It could have been the face of an octogenarian", and opium dependent. Dickens officially died at his home in Gad's Hill, but Wilson draws on Claire Tomalin's research in Charles Dickens. A Life ( Viking 2011) in which she reveals the extent of Dickens' secret affair over 13 years with Ellen Ternan.
The evidence suggests that, in fact, Dickens collapsed at the house in Peckham that he had bought for Ternan and was then taken back, unconscious, to Gad's Hill in a cab by "the resourceful Ternan". She had warned Dickens' housekeeper in a telegram to expect them and have a doctor waiting.
Dickens would die with his family, not his mistress. "That Dickens, the greatest English novelist and celebrant of family innocence, should have collapsed in the bosom of his mistress in Peckham was not to be countenanced".
Wilson's central theme is that Dickens was "a divided self", a man who "wore many masks", a man whose public persona hid another man, shaped by secrets in his past. It was a "divided self who created the alternative comic universe that is 'The Dickens' World'" and it was the hidden secrets of Dickens' loveless childhood, which created his "good and evil selves, carefully compartmentalised and fictionalised".
How else to explain a man who promoted family values in his novels but was a tyrant to his wife, humiliating her with a public separation, announced in The Times; a man captivated by child-like women, who supposedly worshipped feminine purity and yet had probably contracted at some time a venereal disease; a man fascinated by mesmerism; a man consumed by the popularity of his public readings and his persistence in re-enacting Sykes murder of Nancy, despite the toll it took on his health.
Wilson turns to Dickens' two great semi-autobiographical novels David Copperfield and Great Expectations for evidence of the poverty and pain of his childhood: his spendthrift father, neglectful mother and the humiliation of working in the blacking factory, a secret he kept hidden from his family and his reading public. His anger and resentment lasted his whole life. He told his friend and biographer, John Forster, "I never shall forget, I never can forget".
The nightmares of his past are evident in his novels. His family had no idea that "the workhouse urchins, the imprisoned debtors, the vaudevillised bankrupts, the wretchedly unhappy little waifs picking their way, terrified, through the Victorian urban jungle and onto his page were all projected from memories". It's difficult to find a single happy child in all of Dickens' novels.
Wilson claims that Dickens' dramatised public readings of his fiction "are an essential part of the Dickens mystery" because they "transformed Dickens. They were a mind-altering transformative narcotic" and they became an essential part of his life until a few months before his death.
The readings began in 1853, initially of A Christmas Carol and, after the first performance Dickens was "deluged" with invitations from provincial towns and cities. In Bradford alone he drew an audience of 3,700. Dickens had "drawn forth, and charmed, that new phenomenon, the great public".
His repertoire grew to include Mrs Gamp, the death of Paul Dombey and the Trial of Bardell v Pickwick. For his farewell tour in 1869, he decided to add a powerful novelty, the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist. The impact on the first audience proved its success and "the mania for hearing the murder swept through the towns on nights when it was known it would be performed". Dickens on stage and on the page was more than an artist, he was a mesmerist, achieving a level of popularity that was unprecedented.
In his final chapter, Wilson reveals his personal debt to Dickens, writing of his "abject terror and hopelessness . . .walled up aged seven to 13" in a prep school run by a sadistic headmaster and his equally sadistic wife and daughter. In English, however, they studied Dickens, and Wilson claims without those lessons "my spirit would have gone under". Dickens offered "Katharsis through tears" and that's why, for Wilson, Dickens has retained his popularity.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens is a scholarly, eminently readable exploration of the contradictions in Dickens' character and a personal tribute to an author whose novels have "passages of lyricism, descriptive force, comedy and pathos that have no parallels in the English language".