Having finished all Dickens’s novels (except Edwin Drood — if he didn’t finish it, I don’t have to either!), I thought this was a good time to read Michael Slater’s 2007 biography. It was, in fact, the oldest book on my TBR list! Overall, it was a good, workmanlike biography, and I learned a great deal about Dickens’s life. There were things I wish had been different about it, but it was a solid piece of work.
Dickens was born in 1812 and died in 1870, at the age of 58. By that time, he had written 14 complete novels, along with tens of dozens of short stories, novellas, journalistic works, essays, plays, travelogues, histories, and speeches. He created some of the most famous characters in literary history, and was unprecedentedly popular while he was alive — not just among the literary establishment, which indeed thought he was a genius, but among the reading middle class, which bought his stories in the thousands and cheered him in massive numbers.
Dickens was one of the busiest people I’ve ever heard of. He was restless, always moving from one place to another, traveling, moving house, gathering material, never satisfied. He worked at his writing for hours every day — not just his fiction, but his editing and his magazine work — and was offended at any suggestion that writing was easy work or sprang from some sort of genius without effort:
My own invention or imagination, such as it is, I can most truthfully assure you, would never have served me as it has, but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling, drudging attention. Genius, vivacity, quickness of penetration, brilliancy in association of ideas — such mental qualities, like the qualities of the externally armed head in Macbeth will not be commanded; but attention, after due submissive service, always will.
He worked for money, of course. The more famous he got, the more money he could command for his writing, and he took enormous pleasure in it. He was plagued all his life by the lack of copyright law: theaters stole his stories to make plays of them (and since the stories were written in serial form they often guessed the endings wrong, which drove him crazy.) Americans and Europeans reprinted his works without permission and took the profits. And he had a very large family (ten children!) to provide for, not to speak of his feckless parents and siblings. Still, he became wealthy with his work, and not just with his writing: he did performative readings of his own work, which were not only lucrative, they gave him the huge satisfaction of an immediate connection with his audience. He loved doing them and never wanted to give them up, even when travel began to affect his health. Endearingly, he loved his own writing as much as other people did, and laughed and cried over it.
He was also a philanthropist. All his life, he worked and spoke and wrote for various causes for marginalized people: the poor, children, impoverished workers. He helped found a home for fallen women, and helped select them himself. He was a voice against oppressive legislation, in his magazines, in his speeches, and in his fiction, when he memorably mocked public figures under a light veil.
Don’t let me give you the impression that Dickens was a perfect human being. It’s easier to love humanity than to love each human being, and he treated his wife Catherine very poorly. After twenty years of marriage and ten children (that he seemed to see as inevitable, rather than his responsibility), he decided he’d had enough of his marriage, and separated from her brutally, telling himself a narrative that he’d never loved her, that she was a bad mother, and even that she was mentally ill. She got $600 a year and never saw him again; he found an 18-year-old-mistress, Nelly Ternan. (Slater is very careful to say that there is no firm evidence that this relationship was ever consummated, but Dickens bought housing for her, traveled with her, and saw her regularly for the next decade. So… yeah.) He was also quick to take offense, and lost friends when he felt he was being undervalued.
This biography was over 600 pages, and to be honest it felt almost rushed. Dickens wrote so much and did so much that the book could feel repetitive at times: novel, Christmas edition, reading, magazine, novel, Christmas edition. I wished there had been more literary analysis (there was some, but not much — just a little speculation about how his childhood affected some of the things he put into his novels) and I wished I’d heard more about his relationships with or reactions to other novelists of the time period. As it was, I heard about Wilkie Collins several times, Bulwer-Lytton several times, and Elizabeth Gaskell a couple of times (apparently she was a somewhat troublesome contributor to his magazine) but otherwise he could have been in isolation. It was also not terrifically well-written: many times I found myself re-reading sentences that were so much too long or so poorly punctuated that they were confusing. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed reading about Dickens’s travels to America, his performances and readings, and the way his literal work on the novel — his notes, his thought process — developed from Pickwick through Our Mutual Friend. It was such a satisfying and interesting trajectory, and Dickens is such a larger-than-life figure himself.
Overall, I’d say there might be better Dickens biographies out there, but this one was thorough (and chock full of quotations, letters, and other supporting evidence) and worth reading. I learned a lot by reading it, and if you like Dickens, you might too.