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A full-scale portrait of Dickens the man and incorporates into the narrative a discussion of the autobiographical basis and significance of his greatest masterpieces.
Scenes of His Boyhood
On an exquisite September day in 1860, Charles Dickens burned "the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years." The flames rose into the sunlight in the field behind the house at Gad's Hill. Every letter he owned not absolutely on a business matter went up into fire and ashes, letters from friends and family, from the obscure and the famous, from Thomas Carlyle, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, William Harrison Ainsworth, John Forster, Wilkie Collins, Leigh Hunt, letters from his mother, father, brothers, and sisters, letters from his wife, letters from Ellen Ternan. He was mercilessly indiscriminate, absolutely insistent. Henry and Plorn, his two youngest sons, gleefully carried one basketful after another from his study to the bonfire. They soon "roasted onions on the ashes of the great." His daughter Mamie begged her father to save some of the letters. She held them in her hands momentarily, recognizing the handwritings and the signatures. Letters were ephemeral, he responded, "written in the heat of the moment." As the fire destroyed decades of correspondence, he remarked, "'Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.'" The articulate smoke rose into the sky "like the Genie when he got out of the casket on the sea-shore." With the disintegration of the last letters, the sky darkened and it began to rain "very heavily.... I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens."
Fearing that they would be published to an audience that had no business with them, he could, and now did, destroy every private letter he received. Aware that fame generated its own detractors, that the exposure of secrets had as much excitement within public discourse as within fiction, he feared the Victorian equivalent of his phone being tapped. He had no belief in or commitment to the idea of a public record about private matters. His books would speak for him. All other voices should be silenced. His art, not his life, was public property. But no amount of discretion could gainsay that he earned his living as a public man, a writer and an entertainer reading from his own works. The incessant traveling during the readings made his presence in his novels a real voice heard and an actual face seen in innumerable high streets, hotels, and railway stations. Only between 1862 and 1865, when he withdrew temporarily from the reading stage, were his public appearances interludes in an essentially private life. His face, though, was always prominently displayed in bookshop windows across the country. The success of his journal All the Year Round, "Conducted by Charles Dickens" emblazoned in bold print on the cover, kept his name before the public with weekly persistence. One could hardly turn one's head toward a newsstand or a bookstore or a reading table without seeing it. The more famous he became, the more certain it was that his letters would eventually be published. The Heavens would send back some of the smoke.
* * *
Born in Portsmouth on Friday, February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was the second child of a slim, dark-haired, pretty woman. On the night of his birth, Elizabeth Dickens, who apparently declined to act the part of an invalid, and, like her son, loved to dance, had attended a ball. She was a woman of energetic, aggressive self-definition. His father, who made his living as a clerk in the payroll office of the navy, performed as if he had been placed below the rewards that his talents and his love of life merited. John Dickens proudly took the unusual step of trumpeting in the local newspaper that unto him had been born "on Friday, at Mile-end Terrace, the Lady of John Dickens, Esq., a son."
In his adolescence, Dickens constructed the compensatory myth of Friday's special child, just as he would do later for David Copperfield. As an adult, he considered Friday his lucky day, needing to believe that he had been born with great expectations and the talent and will to realize them. Named Charles John Huffam Dickens (he never used the two middle names and "never" forgave his mother and father for them), he was baptized on March 4 in St. Mary's near the modest, narrow house on Mile End Terrace that his family rented.
His earliest memory, from a time when he could have been no more than two, was of a "small front garden." He remembered being watched by a nurse and trotting about "with something to eat, and his little elder sister," Fanny, with him, three motifs that were to become important in his life and fiction, the woman who is the nurturer-protector but who also has the potential to be the vehicle of deprivation; the food that nourishes one, and of which, like Oliver Twist, one often wants "more"; and the lovely sister-wife who represents the ideal woman and the completion of the self. Afterward, he recognized the very spot on which he had as an infant watched a military parade. He had been brought out from the garden to see the soldiers exercise, and he had carried away a vividly remembered "little picture of it, wonderful, accurate." A few years later, "my poor mother ... put me up on the ledge of a ... low wall with an iron railing on the top ... so that I might raise my hat and cheer George 4th—then Prince Regent—who was driving by."
His references to his parents in his letters and in his fiction suggest that the infant had both a heightened sense of dependency and a strong fear of their untrustworthiness, particularly his mother's. One of his favorite stories was of the little boy lost and the little boy found, of the child separated from his family, like the chimney sweep who had "been stolen from his parents in his infancy [who] ... was sent in the course of his professional career to sweep the chimney of his mother's bedroom; and ... being hot and tired ... he got into the bed he had so often slept in as an infant, and was discovered and recognized therein by his mother." Such recognition scenes happen often to young adolescents in his fiction, in time to revive some earlier ideal model when child and mother lived together in blissful harmony. The scenes generally occur without benefit of father, who is usually absent, sometimes dead. Whether or not such a time ever existed for him is doubtful. His need to be recognized by his mother seems always to have been unfulfilled.
Born in 1785, his father, John Dickens, was the second son of a steward, William Dickens, and a servant, Elizabeth Ball. Both were trusted employees of John Crewe, a member of Parliament who became Lord Crewe in the early nineteenth century. They had married in 1781 at St. George's Church, Hanover Square, London, the same church in which funeral services were held for William Dickens fourteen years later. The younger of two sons, John was ten years old at his father's death. Other than the claim that he competently managed the household at Crewe Hall in Chester and perhaps on Grosvenor Street, London, William Dickens has no personal history. His background is the recordless blank of the eighteenth-century servant class, illiterate, anonymous functionaries in a world in which their social importance was local and generic. His wife survived him by thirty-nine years, rising to the position of housekeeper to the Crewe family. Her background is as obscure as her husband's. She was remembered years later not by her grandson, to whom she bequeathed her husband's silver watch, but by members of the Crewe family, particularly for her powers as an impromptu storyteller. Though she never learned to read or write, apparently she created romances and fairy tales, the "invention of her clever and original brain," for she possessed "strong story-telling powers." The claim has its symbolic resonance, the movement from the oral expression of folk tales and romances by an illiterate woman to the great written literature of her descendant two generations later. When she died, Charles was twelve years old. She makes no recognizable appearance in his comments about his family or in his fiction. But through her influence with her employer, nineteen-year-old John Dickens was appointed in April 1805 an "extra clerk" in the navy pay office in Somerset House, London, at five shillings a day. Two years later, he rose to fifteenth assistant clerk on the permanent staff at a total salary of about one hundred pounds a year. He was thought careless with money, irresponsible about work, and too eager to enjoy the pleasures of conviviality.
Born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, which was to be the setting for one of her son's most successful novels, Elizabeth Dickens was the second of the ten children of Charles Barrow and Mary Culliford, who had married in 1788. A lieutenant in the navy as a young man, Barrow became a partner in his father-in-law's musical-instrument firm in London. Then, in the first year of the new century, he was appointed a clerk in the navy pay office in Somerset House. The Barrows were modestly affluent, successful in the wool business, then in journalism and the civil service. Soon Barrow became "Chief Conductor of Monies in Town," his salary rising to £330 a year. In June 1809, Charles Barrow's twenty-year-old daughter married his twenty-four-year-old colleague. The groom had been working in Portsmouth, probably since November 1807, with frequent trips to London to court Elizabeth, who had bright hazel eyes and a slim waist. He kept his servant-class origins out of sight as much as possible. The newlyweds soon settled in Portsmouth, where John Dickens now earned a salary of £110 a year. Like his father-in-law, he handled payroll accounts. Within the year, his annual salary increased to a little over £200. By November 1809, Elizabeth was pregnant. In January 1810, an extraordinary scandal exploded. Her father, Charles Barrow, who had found his income insufficient to cover the costs of a comfortable life for himself and his family, was caught secretly pocketing large amounts of government money. The system made it easy for him to do so—temporarily. The discovery stunned family and friends. Shame, remorse, guilt: Where had all the money gone? He pleaded "the very heavy expenses of a family often children, increased by constant illness." When criminal prosecution became almost a certainty, he fled to the Continent and then to the Isle of Man, beyond the reach of British law.
The financial difficulties that plagued the Dickens family during Charles's youth had their beginnings in the first years of his childhood. The pleasures of conviviality were essential for John Dickens, but the family soon found that laughter was costly. The paterfamilias had little sense of the importance of adjusting his needs to his income. His wife either had not been taught economy or was a poor learner. The young couple enjoyed dinners, parties, family gatherings, and assumed that their income would be sufficient sooner or later to redeem their current expenses. Still, the family seems to have been solvent during these Portsmouth years. In late June 1812, perhaps as an attempt to economize, they moved from Mile End Terrace to 16 Hawke Street. At Christmas 1813, they made another local move, to 39 Wish Street, where a second son, Alfred, was born. Charles may perhaps have been responsive enough to feel the gloom in the household when, in September, the infant died "of water on the brain."
None of them were likely to have been pleased when John Dickens was transferred back to London in late 1814. At this time Elizabeth's eldest sister, Mary Allen, whose husband had died the previous year, lived with them. They were a family of five, with another child visibly on the way. The move increased the financial burden. John Dickens' salary, which had included a special "outport" supplement, now fell to two hundred pounds per year. They moved to 10 Norfolk Street, between the crowded Tottenham Court Road area and Great Portland Street, in the heart of the city in which Dickens was to live much of his adult life. This stay in London lasted about two years. A second daughter, Letitia Mary, was born in April 1816. At the baptism her father listed his station in life as "gentleman." Time passed, and the crucial years between two and four never seem to surface except in the interstices of fiction, where autobiography merges into the wish to transform and the wish to forget. At the beginning of January 1817, John Dickens was transferred to Sheerness, in Kent, probably glad to have his "outpay" restored. In March, with retrenchment at Sheerness, he was transferred again, about twenty miles distant, to the pay office of the naval yard in Chatham, adjacent to Rochester.
The "massive grey square tower" of Rochester Cathedral dominates the fertile landscape into which the young boy first came to youthful consciousness. The rooks, as they ascend, circling that stable tower in every season, survey the narrow streets of the old cathedral town, the magnificent ruin of a once mighty fortress, the naval dockyard at Chatham, then the glittering river Medway, which gradually widens and disappears into its estuary and the cold waters of the Channel. The hills across the river and the landscape of Kent glitter peacefully, quietly. London is too distant to the west and north to be seen.
That landscape was the primal home of Dickens' imagination. All his "early readings" dated from this place. In his memory, he bathed that vista in a glow of calm summers, of celebratory winters. That radiant landscape became forever associated with the time in which he felt young and loved. The garden of his creative fruitfulness, a place initially almost without dark shadows, it was the home to which he regularly returned, in his novels and in his life, his place of refreshment until refreshment was no longer possible. And his final but incomplete novel, whose last words he wrote on a bright June day in a summer house from which he could see the traffic on the Medway, unites the nurturing Kent of his boyhood with the death that resides in all natural things.
Like all paradises, Kent was retrospective. As an adult, he remembered its sights, scenes, and experiences vividly. Often they were associated with his father, the articulated presence that set his values and sense of self. An event that stuck in his memory, that he wrote about years afterward as a defining myth, brought father and son past an imposing late-eighteenth-century house on the Gravesend Road called Gad's Hill Place, the hill associated with Falstaff's adventures in Shakespeare's Henry IV. To the small boy, used to his lower-middle-class world and the cramped houses of his earlier childhood, it seemed a palatial wonder. If he "were to be very persevering and were to work hard," his father told him, he "might some day come to live in it." The association of Shakespeare, his favorite author, with success; his father's encouragement to think nothing impossible for the assiduous and the talented; and the association of writing with money and status, all must have produced feelings and connections that had a strong influence on him.
Since Chatham and Rochester were adjacent, the towns formed a continuous playground. In one direction lay the dignity and history of Rochester, in the other the excitement of the bustling modern dockyard. Chatham provided the drama of action, the streets overflowing with soldiers and sailors, the marketplace busy with buying and selling, often by those with either too much or too little in their pockets, and the clamorous noises of the large dockyard, where convict labor did most of the hauling and pulling. He was fascinated by the ships, by mechanical devices such as a crane to lift and sort logs, which he called the "Chinese Enchanter's Cart," and by the men, "these busy figures ... bending at their work in smoke and fire."
Rochester provided the dignity of an ancient city, stimulation for his historical imagination: the cathedral, Fort Pitt, the Tudor buildings, the moonfaced clock suspended over the narrow high street, the coaching inns, the Theatre Royal, where he first saw Shakespeare performed, the gravitas of the town and the townspeople. The stolid bridge across the Medway carried the London road northward and left Rochester the other way toward Dover and the mysterious world called "abroad." Some distance downriver huge gray ships were used as jails, the hulks from which Pip, in Great Expectations, hears the gunfire that signals the escape of a prisoner. Charles may have heard from others or from the voice of his imagination that "people are put in the Hulks because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they always begin by asking questions."
Excerpted from Dickens by Fred Kaplan. Copyright © 1988 Fred Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 18, 2013
Posted July 18, 2013
Posted July 18, 2013