AT the end of his life, Charles Dickens did not have great expectations for Christmas.
He had separated from his wife, describing his marriage as “blighted and wasted.” His mistress was not around. He was disappointed that his sons lacked his ambition. His final Christmas, he wrote a colleague, was painful and miserable.
“The Inimitable,” as he had christened himself when he was young and celebrated, was drained from traveling to give paid readings and suffering from such severe gout that he could not write clearly or walk well. He was confined to bed all Christmas Day and through dinner, bleak in his house.
Literature’s answer to Santa Claus, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes in “Becoming Dickens,” had always gravitated to the holiday.
“Christmas was always a time which in our home was looked forward to with eagerness and delight,” his daughter Mamie said.
Dickens would dance and play the conjurer. “My father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything,” recalled his son Henry.
Douglas-Fairhurst wonders if this “inventor of Christmas” might have developed his “ruthless” determination to enjoy the day because of the traumatic year he spent as a child working in a rat-infested shoe-polish warehouse in London after his father went to prison for debts. Did England’s most famous novelist need “to recreate his childhood as it should have been rather than as it was?”
The biographer notes that Dickens, in his fiction, “rarely describes a family Christmas without showing how vulnerable it is to being broken apart by a more miserable alternative. In ‘Great Expectations’ it is the soldiers who burst into Pip’s home on Christmas Day, saving him from a dinner in which the only highlight is Joe slopping extra spoonfuls of gravy onto his plate. In ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ the young hero goes missing on Christmas Eve, leaving behind several clues that he had been murdered by his uncle. Saddest of all, in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Scrooge is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Past to observe his boyhood self left behind at school, and weeps ‘to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.’ ”
Douglas-Fairhurst points out that Dickens’s fiction teems with ifs, just-supposes and alternative scenarios, “what might have been and what was not.” He even wrote two different endings for “Great Expectations,” one where Estella and Pip don’t end up together and one where they seem to.
“Pause you,” Pip says, “and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Dickens was rescued from the warehouse and sent back to school when his father got out of prison and wangled a Navy pension. But that year drove home to him how frighteningly random fate can be.
“I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond,” he once said.
His need to control his fate may have led to a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He routinely rearranged the furniture in hotel rooms, acknowledging that his “love of order” was “almost a disorder.”
Dickens — whose bicentenary will be celebrated on Feb. 7 — worked himself to death at 58, but he always feared obscurity was lurking.
In October 1843, he had the idea for “A Christmas Carol.” As Claire Tomalin writes in another new book, “Charles Dickens: A Life,” he told a friend “he had composed it in his head, weeping and laughing and weeping again” as he walked around London at night.
He had visited one of the “ragged schools,” set up in poor parts of London by volunteer teachers to educate homeless, starving and disabled pupils, and the novella, published that December, was his screed about the indifference of the rich toward those less fortunate.
Scrooge gets redeemed from an alternate life as a misanthrope, and Tiny Tim is saved from death. But two “wolfish” children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want, are not rescued, but rather left to haunt readers’ consciences.
In his 1851 short story “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”
“Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.
Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love. Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.
“Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote. “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”
Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream, An', taught by time, I tak' it so---exceptin' always Steam. From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God--- Predestination in the stride o' yon connectin'-rod. John Calvin might ha' forged the same---enorrmous, certain, slow--- Ay, wrought it in the furnace-flame---my "Institutio." I cannot get my sleep to-night; old bones are hard to please; I'll stand the middle watch up here---alone wi' God an' these My engines, after ninety days o' rase an' rack an' strain Through all the seas of all Thy world, slam-bangin' home again. Slam-bang too much---they knock a wee---the crosshead-gibs are loose, But thirty thousand mile o' sea has gied them fair excuse.... Fine, clear an'dark---a full-draught breeze, wi' Ushant out o' sight, An' Ferguson relievin' Hay. Old girl, ye'll walk to-night! His wife's at Plymouth.... Seventy---One---Two---Three since he began--- Three turns for Mistress Ferguson... and who's to blame the man? There's none at any port for me, by drivin' fast or slow, Since Elsie Campbell went to Thee, Lord, thirty years ago. (The year the Sarah Sands was burned. Oh roads we used to tread, Fra' Maryhill to Pollokshaws--fra' Govan to Parkhead!) Not but that they're ceevil on the Board. Ye'll hear Sir Kenneth say: "Good morn, McAndrew! Back again? An' how's your bilge to-day?" Miscallin' technicalities but handin' me my chair To drink Madeira wi' three Earls---the auld Fleet Engineer That started as a boiler-whelp---when steam and he were low. I mind the time we used to serve a broken pipe wi' tow! Ten pound was all the pressure then---Eh! Eh!---a man wad drive; An' here, our workin' gauges give one hunder sixty-five! We're creepin' on wi' each new rig---less weight an' larger power; There'll be the loco-boiler next an' thirty miles an hour! Thirty an' more. What I ha' seen since ocean-steam began Leaves me na doot for the machine: but what about the man? The man that counts, wi' all his runs, one million mile o' sea: Four time the span from Earth to Moon.... How far, O Lord from thee That wast beside him night an' day? Ye mind my first typhoon? It scoughed the skipper on his way to jock wi' the saloon. Three feet were on the stokehold-floor---just slappin' to an' fro--- An' cast me on a furnace-door. I have the marks to show. Marks! I ha' marks o' more than burns---deep in my soul an' black, An' times like this, when things go smooth, my wickudness comes back. The sins o' four an' forty years, all up an' down the seas. Clack an' repeat like valves half-fed.... Forgie's our trespasses! Nights when I'd come on to deck to mark, wi' envy in my gaze, The couples kittlin' in the dark between the funnel-stays; Years when I raked the Ports wi' pride to fill my cup o' wrong--- Judge not, O Lord, my steps aside at Gay Street in Hong-Kong! Blot out the wastrel hours of mine in sin when I abode--- Jane Harrigan's an' Number Nine, The Reddick an' Grant Road! An' waur than all---my crownin' sin---rank blasphemy an' wild. I was not four and twenty then---Ye wadna judge a child? I'd seen the Tropics first that run---new fruit, new smells, new air--- How could I tell---blinf-fou wi' sun--- the Deil was lurkin' there? By day like playhouse-scenes the shore slid past our sleepy eyes; By night thos soft, lasceevious stars leered from those velvet skies, In port (we used no cargo-steam) I'd daunder down the streets--- An ijjit grinnin' in a dream---for shells an' parrakeets, An' walkin'-sticks o' carved bamboo an' blowfish stuffed an' dried--- Fillin' my bunk wi' rubbishry the Cheif put overside. Till, off Sambawa Head, Ye mind, I heard a land-breeze ca', Milk-warm wi' breath o' spice an' bloom: "McAndrew, Come awa'!" Firm, clear an' low---no haste, no hate---the ghostly whisper went, Just statin' eevidential facts beyon' all argument: "Your mither's god's a graspin' deil, the shadow o' yoursel', "Got out o' books by meenisters clean daft on Heaven an' Hell. "They mak' him in the Broomielaw, o' Glasgie cold an' dirt, "A jealous, pridefu' fetich, lad, that's only strong to hurt. "Ye'll not go back to Him again an' kiss His red-hot rod, "But come wi' Us" (Now who were They?) "an' know the Leevin' God, "That does not kipper souls for sport or break a life in jest, "But swells the ripenin' cocoanuts an' ripes the woman's breast." An' there it stopped: cut off: no more; that quiet, certain voice--- For me, six months o' twenty-four, to leave or take at choice. 'Twas on me like a thunderclap---it racked me through an' through--- Temptation past the show o' speech, unnameable an' new--- The Sin against the Holy Ghost?... An' under all, our screw. That storm blew by but left behind her anchor-shiftin' swell. thou knowest all my heart an' mind, Thou knowest, Lord, I fell--- Third on the Mary Gloster then, and first that night in Hell! Yet was Thy Hand beneath my head, about my feet Thy Care--- Fra' Deli clear to Torres Strait, the trial o' despair, But when we touched the Barrier Reef Thy answer to my prayer!... We wared na run that sea by night but lay an' held our fire, An' I was drowsin' on the hatch---sick---sick wi' doubt an' tire: "Better the sight of eyes that see than wanderin' o' desire!" Ye mind that word? Clear as gongs---again, an' once again, When rippin' down through coral-trash ran out our moorin'-chain: An', by Thy Grace, I had the light to see my duty plain. Light on the engine-room---no more---bright as our carbons burn. I've lost it since a thousand times, but never past return! Obsairve! Per annum we'll have here two thousand souls aboard--- Think not I dare to justify myself before the Lord, But---average fifteen hunder souls safe-born fra' port to port--- I am o' service to my kind. Ye wadna blame the thought? Maybe they steam from Grace to Wrath---to sin by folly led--- It isna mine to judge their path---their lives are on my head. Mine at the last---when all is done it all comes back to me, The fault that leaves six thousand ton a log upon the sea. We'll tak' one stretch---three weeks an odd by ony road ye steer--- Fra' Cape Town east to Wellington---ye need an engineer. Fail there---ye've time to weld your shaft---ay, eat it, ere ye're spoke; Or make Kergueen under sail---three jiggers burned wi' smoke! An' home again---the Rio run: it's no child's play to go Steamin' to bell for fourteen days o' snow an' floe an' blow. The beergs like kelpies oversde that girn an' turn an' shift Whaur, grindin' like the Mills o' God, goes by the big South drift. (Hail, Snow and Ice that praise the Lord. I've met them at their work, An wished we had anither route or they another kirk.) Yon's strain, hard strain, o' head an' hand, for though Thy Power brings All skill to naught, Ye'll underatand a man must think o' things. Then, at the last, we'll get to port an' hoist their baggage clear--- The passengers, wi' gloves an' canes---an' this is what I'll hear: "Well, thank ye for a pleasant voyage. The tender's comin' now." While I go testin' follower-bolts an' watch the skipper bow. They've words for every one but me---shake hands wi' half the crew, Except the dour Scots engineer, the man they never knew. An' yet I like the wark for all we've dam' few pickin's here--- No pension, an' the most we'll earn's four hunder pound a year. Better myself abroad? Maybe. I'd sooner starve than sail Wi' such as call a snifter-rod ross.... French for nightingale. Commeesion on my stores? Some do; but I cannot afford To lie like stewards wi' patty-pans. I'm older than the Board. A bonus on the coal I save? Ou ay, the Scots are close, But when I grudge the strength Ye gave I'll grudge their food to those. (There's bricks that I might recommend---an' clink the firebars cruel. No! Welsh---Wangarti at the worst---an' damn all patent fuel!) Inventions? Ye must stay in port to mak' a patent pay. My Deeferential Valve-Gear taught me how that business lay. I blame no chaps wi' clearer heads for aught they make or sell. I found that I could not invent an' look to these as well. So, wrestled wi' Apollyon---Nah!---fretted like a bairn--- But burned the workin'-plans last run, wi' all I hoped to earn. Ye know how hard an Idol dies, an' what that meant to me--- E'en tak' it for a sacrifice acceptable to Thee.... Below there! Oiler! What's your wark? Ye find it runnin' hard? Ye needn't swill the cup wi' oil---this isn't the Cunard! Ye thought? Ye are not paid to think. Go, sweat that off again! Tck! Tck! It's deeficult to sweer nor tak' The Name in vain! Men, ay an' women, call me stern. Wi' these to oversee, Ye'll note I've little time to burn on social repartee. The bairns see what their elders miss; they'll hunt me to an' fro, Till for the sake of---well, a kiss---I tak' 'em down below. That minds me of our Viscount loon---Sir Kenneth's kin---the chap Wi' Russia leather tennis-shoon an' spar-decked yachtin'-cap. I showed him round last week, o'er all---an' at the last says he: "Mister McAndrew, Don't you think steam spoils romance at sea?" Damned ijjit! I'd been doon that morn to see what ailed the throws, Manholin', on my back---the cranks three inches off my nose. Romance! Those first-class passengers they like it very well, Printed an' bound in little books; but why don't poets tell? I'm sick of all their quirks an' turns---the loves an' doves they dream--- Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o' Steam! To match wi' Scotia's noblest speech yon orchestra sublime Whaurto---uplifted like the Just---the tail-rods mark the time. The crank-throws give the double-bass, the feed-pump sobs an' heaves, An' now the main eccentrics start their quarrel on the sheaves: Her time, her own appointed time, the rocking link-head bides, Till---hear that note?---the rod's return whings glimmerin' through the guides. They're all awa'! True beat, full power, the clangin' chorus goes Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin' dynamos. Interdependence absolute, forseen, ordained, decreed, To work, Ye'll note, at ony tilt an' every rate o' speed. Fra' Skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an' stayed. An' singin' like the Mornin' Stars for joy that they are made; While, out o' touch o' vanity, the sweatin' thrust-block says: "Not unto us the praise, or man---not unto us the praise!" Now, a' together, hear them lift their lesson---theirs an' mine: "Law, Orrder, Duty an' Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!" Mill, forge an' try-pit taught them that when roarin' they arose, An' whiles I wonder if a soul was gied them wi' the blows. Oh for a man to weld it then, in one trip-hammer strain, Till even first-class passengers could tell the meanin' plain! But no one cares except mysel' that serve an' understand My seven thousand horse-power here. Eh Lord! They're grand---they're grand! Uplift am I? When first in store the new-made beasties stood, Were Ye cast down that breathed the Word declarin' all things good? Not so! O' that warld-liftin' joy no after-fall could vex, Ye've left a glimmer still to cheer the Man---the Arrtifex! That holds, in spite o' knock and scale, o' friction, waste an' slip, An' by that light---now, mark my word---we'll build the Perfect Ship. I'll never last to judge her lines, or take her curve---not I. But I ha' lived an' I ha' worked. Be thanks to Thee, Most High! An' I ha' done what I ha' done---judge Thou if ill or well--- Always Thy grace preventin' me.... Losh! Yon's the "Stand-by" bell. Pilot so soon? His flare it is. The mornin'-watch is set. Well, God be thanked, as I was sayin', I'm no Pelagian yet. Now, I'll tak' on.... 'Morrn, Ferguson. Man, have ye ever thought What your good leddy costs in coal?... I'll burn 'em down to port.
|round-shouldered||(adjective) Denoting a faulty posture characterized by drooping shoulders and a slight forward bending of the back.|
|Synonyms:||hunched, stooped, crooked|
|Usage:||I remember those girls merely as faces in the schoolroom,...cut off below the shoulders...by the ink-smeared tops of the high desks that were surely put there to make us round-shouldered and hollow-chested.|
Having the shoulders and upper back rounded.
|Carl Sandburg. 1878–1967|
|THE fog comes|
|on little cat feet.|
|It sits looking|
|over harbor and city|
|on silent haunches||5|
|and then moves on.|
I THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;-- Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more. II The Rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the Rose, The Moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare, Waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know, where'er I go, That there hath past away a glory from the earth. III Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song, And while the young lambs bound As to the tabor's sound, To me alone there came a thought of grief: A timely utterance gave that thought relief, And I again am strong: The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep; No more shall grief of mine the season wrong; I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng, The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep, And all the earth is gay; Land and sea Give themselves up to jollity, And with the heart of May Doth every Beast keep holiday;-- Thou Child of Joy, Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy! IV Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call Ye to each other make; I see The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee; My heart is at your festival, My head hath its coronal, The fulness of your bliss, I feel--I feel it all. Oh evil day! if I were sullen While Earth herself is adorning, This sweet May-morning, And the Children are culling On every side, In a thousand valleys far and wide, Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm, And the Babe leaps up on his Mother's arm:-- I hear, I hear, with joy I hear! --But there's a Tree, of many, one, A single Field which I have looked upon, Both of them speak of something that is gone: The Pansy at my feet Doth the same tale repeat: Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream? V Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But He beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature's Priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day. VI Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own; Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind, And, even with something of a Mother's mind, And no unworthy aim, The homely Nurse doth all she can To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man, Forget the glories he hath known, And that imperial palace whence he came. VII Behold the Child among his new-born blisses, A six years' Darling of a pigmy size! See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies, Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses, With light upon him from his father's eyes! See, at his feet, some little plan or chart, Some fragment from his dream of human life, Shaped by himself with newly-learned art; A wedding or a festival, A mourning or a funeral; And this hath now his heart, And unto this he frames his song: Then will he fit his tongue To dialogues of business, love, or strife; But it will not be long Ere this be thrown aside, And with new joy and pride The little Actor cons another part; Filling from time to time his "humorous stage" With all the Persons, down to palsied Age, That Life brings with her in her equipage; As if his whole vocation Were endless imitation. VIII Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie Thy Soul's immensity; Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind, That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep, Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,-- Mighty Prophet! Seer blest! On whom those truths do rest, Which we are toiling all our lives to find, In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave; Thou, over whom thy Immortality Broods like the Day, a Master o'er a Slave, A Presence which is not to be put by; Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height, Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke The years to bring the inevitable yoke, Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife? Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, And custom lie upon thee with a weight Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life! IX O joy! that in our embers Is something that doth live, That nature yet remembers What was so fugitive! The thought of our past years in me doth breed Perpetual benediction: not indeed For that which is most worthy to be blest-- Delight and liberty, the simple creed Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest, With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:-- Not for these I raise The song of thanks and praise; But for those obstinate questionings Of sense and outward things, Fallings from us, vanishings; Blank misgivings of a Creature Moving about in worlds not realised, High instincts before which our mortal Nature Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised: But for those first affections, Those shadowy recollections, Which, be they what they may, Are yet the fountain light of all our day, Are yet a master light of all our seeing; Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make Our noisy years seem moments in the being Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake, To perish never; Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour, Nor Man nor Boy, Nor all that is at enmity with joy, Can utterly abolish or destroy! Hence in a season of calm weather Though inland far we be, Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither, Can in a moment travel thither, And see the Children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. X Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song! And let the young Lambs bound As to the tabor's sound! We in thought will join your throng, Ye that pipe and ye that play, Ye that through your hearts to-day Feel the gladness of the May! What though the radiance which was once so bright Be now for ever taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be; In the soothing thoughts that spring Out of human suffering; In the faith that looks through death, In years that bring the philosophic mind. XI And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, Forebode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquished one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway. I love the Brooks which down their channels fret, Even more than when I tripped lightly as they; The innocent brightness of a new-born Day Is lovely yet; The Clouds that gather round the setting sun Do take a sober colouring from an eye That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms are won. Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. 1803-6.
Almost 200 years after she died, Jane Austen’s early death at the age of just 41 has been attributed to many things, from cancer to Addison’s disease. Now sleuthing from a crime novelist has uncovered a new possibility： arsenic poisoning.
Author Lindsay Ashford moved to Austen’s village of Chawton three years ago. She soon became engrossed in old volumes of Austen’s letters, and one morning spotted a sentence Austen wrote just a few months before she died："I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour."
Having researched modern forensic techniques and poisons for her crime novels, Ashford immediately realised the symptoms could be ascribed to arsenic poisoning, which can cause "raindrop" pigmentation, where patches of skin go brown or black, and other areas go white.
Professor Janet Todd, editor for the Cambridge edition of Jane Austen, said that murder was implausible. "I doubt very much she would have been poisoned intentionally. I think it’s very unlikely. But the possibility she had arsenic for rheumatism, say, is quite likely."
engross：動詞，使人全神貫注、吸引。例句：He’s engrossed in his work.（他專心工作。）
ascribe to：歸因於…、認為…是。例句：He ascribed his success to hard work.（他把自己的成就歸功於自己的努力。）
implausible：形容詞，不合情理，難以置信。例句：Though her alibi seemed implausible, it in fact turned out to be true.（儘管她的不在場證明看似不合情理，但結果卻是真的。）
Robert DOUGLAS-FAIRHURST, the Oxford scholar who is one of Charles Dickens’s two new biographers, rightly calls his subject “at once the most central and most eccentric literary figure” of his age, and the investigations into the dark corners of that eccentric life began with Dickens himself. In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking. The first volume of the biography he’d wanted Forster to write — which made the blacking-factory episode public — appeared in 1872, two years after Dickens died at the age of 58, and its successors keep coming. The Dickens biographies published just in the past 25 years make an impressive stack. Given his uncanny genius and the vivid complexity of his life, that’s not a complaint.
By Claire Tomalin
Illustrated. 527 pp. The Penguin Press. $36
The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
Illustrated. 389 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $29.95
Still, in all these books, the most memorable moments come from the accounts of those who saw him in person. I’d trade a whole pile of biographies for a video clip of the young Dickens, while courting Catherine Hogarth, his wife-to-be, leaping unannounced through the French windows of her family’s house in a sailor suit, dancing a hornpipe, leaping out again, then walking in at the door “as sedately as though quite innocent of the prank.” And I’d trade that clip, plus the biographies, for footage of Dickens’s face-to-face interview with his admirer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1862. “He told me,” Dostoyevsky recalled in a letter written years later, “that all the good, simple people in his novels . . . are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love. . . . There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel, I try to live my life.”
Claire Tomalin, the other new biographer, who quotes this confession in “Charles Dickens: A Life,” calls it “amazing” — though it’s only amazing because it’s the image-conscious Dickens himself coming out and saying what anybody familiar with his work and his life has always intuited. “It is as though with Dostoyevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public.”
As Tomalin notes, this “must be Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life,” and it seems to be one of the few crucial bits of Dickensiana that’s relatively fresh. Both Tomalin and Michael Slater, who cites the same passage in his 2009 biography, “Charles Dickens,” found the newly translated Dostoyevsky letter in a 2002 article in The Dickensian. Neither Fred Kaplan (“Dickens: A Biography,” 1988) nor Peter Ackroyd (“Dickens,” 1991) seems to have known about it. Mostly, the recent biographies are remixes of familiar episodes and anecdotes; their interest lies largely in what’s included and what’s left out, how deeply the biographer goes into unpublished or unfamiliar work, and what’s adduced from further research into the world in which Dickens lived and worked.
Neither Tomalin nor Douglas-Fairhurst, in “Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist,” sees fit to show us Dickens dancing the hornpipe in his sailor suit, though Ackroyd and Slater apparently found it a charming, perhaps significant, glimpse of the young man at play. And how could Tomalin have resisted the story of Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell (affectionately evoked as Dora in “David Copperfield,” then cruelly caricatured as Flora Finching in “Little Dorrit”), near the end of her life, drunkenly kissing the place on her couch where he’d once sat? Maria’s former nursemaid published the account in 1912; Douglas-Fairhurst retells it, and while Slater didn’t include it in his biography, he’d already used it in an earlier book, “Dickens and Women.” Yet only an obsessive would worry too much about which anecdote didn’t make whose cut: an ideal life of Dickens would just stick in everything, and probably no publisher would touch it.
After Tomalin’s much-praised biographies of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys, it’s no surprise to find her portrait of Dickens at least as thorough as Kaplan’s or Slater’s, though she gives us no introduction explaining why previous biographies have made hers necessary, and sometimes teases us with flat summary where we want meat. (If, for instance, “the critics were merciless” about his 1846 Christmas book, “The Battle of Life,” why not quote them?) Her book lacks the rich texture and empathetic intimacy of Ackroyd’s far longer work. On the other hand, Tomalin would never indulge in zaniness like Ackroyd’s interpolated self-interview or his scene in which Dickens meets his own characters or the imagined encounter between Dickens and a biographer, presumably Ackroyd himself. And Tomalin’s treatment of the great secret of Dickens’s life — his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan, for whom he left his marriage in 1858, when he was 46 and she was 19 — seems more credible, even when it’s necessarily speculative. In 1990 she devoted an entire book, “The Invisible Woman,” to exploring this secret — whose existence Dickensians have known about at least since the 1930s.
Despite Dickens’s discreet, intermittent cohabitation with Ternan, Ackroyd found it “almost inconceivable” that the two actually went to bed together: he argued that their idyll was merely “the realization of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies. That of sexless marriage with a young, idealized virgin.” Few other scholars agree — not even Edgar Johnson, whose two-volume “Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph,” published in 1952, was the first major modern biography. As Tomalin notes, Dickens was a sexual creature: he fathered 10 children with his wife, and after they separated he apparently sought treatment for a venereal infection. Had he been such a prude as his fiction and his public persona sometimes suggested — after news of his separation got around, Forster had to talk him out of calling a new start-up magazine Household Harmony — he would hardly have remained close friends with sophisticated sexual outlaws like the artists Frank Stone and Daniel Maclise, the novelist Wilkie Collins and the Count d’Orsay, the French dandy whom he made godfather to his son Alfred. Hearsay and circumstantial evidence even suggest that Ternan might have borne Dickens a son, who died within a year.
We can only guess about certain aspects of Dickens’s relationship with Ternan, but Tomalin does build a convincing case. She’s less convincing when she suggests that Dickens’s fatal stroke might have happened while he was off with Ternan, and that he might have been sneaked back into his own house, unconscious, to be officially discovered. This reads like some of the wilder theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but, to Tomalin’s credit, she doesn’t insist on it.
Douglas-Fairhurst’s “Becoming Dickens” takes us only through 1839 and the completion of “Oliver Twist,” Dickens’s second novel — and the first whose title page he dignified with his own name rather than “Boz,” the cockney-ish alias under which he first became popular with “Sketches by Boz” and “The Pickwick Papers.” Douglas-Fairhurst’s is a far more lively and detailed book — a more Dickensian book — than Tomalin’s, though not always to its advantage. When his painstaking research combines with an overactive fancy, we get such passages as this description of Dickens taking a curtain call after his now-forgotten 1836 operetta “The Village Coquettes”: “The curtains of St. James’s Theatre were green” — how did he find that out? — “as were the covers of ‘Pickwick,’ so in coming onstage Dickens would have looked strangely like the author himself emerging from his writing.”
Yet more often Douglas-Fairhurst serves as a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, yet sympathetic tour guide to the young Dickens’s strange world and equally strange sensibility. He performs deft deconstructions of such arcana as a labored comic poem to Maria Beadnell: “Telling a new girlfriend what you would feel like if she were dead is certainly an unusual seduction technique.” He discusses the trash Dickens read as a boy (from “The Terrific Register” to a comic miscellany called “Broad Grins”), a probable inspiration for Oliver Twist’s benefactor Mr. Brownlow (a man of the same name was secretary of the Foundling Hospital “a few hundred yards from Dickens’s home”) and a precursor of the rapid-fire tale-spinning of Jingle in “Pickwick” (the monologues of the comedian Charles Mathews, “Dickens’s favorite solo performer”). His research extends to the pirates and imitators who ripped off Dickens’s early work — including one G. M. W. Reynolds, whose “Pickwick in India” “abruptly ceased publication after seven chapters when the author . . . wrote himself into a corner with a gloating description of Mr. Pickwick being devoured by a shark.” And it’s Douglas-Fairhurst, not the sober-sided Tomalin, who sees the humor in this icky irrelevancy: Dickens’s publisher had wanted to give his first book the Elmer Fuddian title “Bubbles From the Bwain of Boz.”
In fairness to Tomalin, the story she’s obliged to tell of her subject’s later life would temper anybody’s sense of fun. The leaping, hornpiping young man aged badly. In his 50s he often hobbled around with a gouty foot, and sometimes had to be helped onstage during the obsessive and exhausting reading tours that may have hastened his death — a malign redirecting of the manic energy that had once enabled him to work on two serialized novels simultaneously while also editing a monthly magazine. Twenty-eight times between January 1869 and March 1870, Dickens performed the horrifying episode in “Oliver Twist” in which Bill Sikes murders the prostitute Nancy. After it, Dickens had to lie down, unable to speak; when his manager tried to get him to do quieter readings, he threw a tantrum and burst into tears.
Tomalin accurately describes Dickens’s treatment of the abandoned Catherine as shameful: he went so far as to publish a letter accusing her of “a mental disorder,” and he wrote to a friend that she was glad to be rid of their children, “and they are glad to be rid of her.” His daughter Katey recalled that after the separation, “my father was like a madman. . . . He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.”
Dickens had a premonitory stroke in 1869, and at his final public reading, in March 1870, he was unable to pronounce the name “Pickwick.” On June 8, he had another stroke, and the next day the unconscious Dickens “gave a sigh, a tear appeared in his right eye and ran down his cheek, and he stopped breathing.” That tear was the last of Dickens’s many gifts to his biographers — of all the recent retellings of the death scene, only Michael Slater’s version omits it — and here’s hoping we’ll see it again and again and again until the ideal, the impossible life is written at last.
David Gates’s most recent book is “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” a collection of stories.
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is a travel journal by Scotsman James Boswell first published in 1785. In 1773, Boswell enticed his English friend Samuel Johnson to accompany him on a tour through the highlands and western islands of Scotland. Johnson was then in his mid sixties and well known for his literary works and his Dictionary. The two travellers set out from Edinburgh and skirted the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland, passing through St Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness. They then passed into the highlands and spent several weeks on various islands in the Hebrides, including Skye, Coll, and Mull. After a visit to Boswell's estate at Auchinleck, the travellers returned to Edinburgh. Johnson published his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland on 18 January 1775.
It was widely read, discussed and criticised, especially for some skeptical remarks Johnson made questioning the authenticity of the Ossian poems, which were then all the rage. After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell published his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. This work was based on a diary Boswell had kept during the 1773 tour and included detailed descriptions of where he and Johnson had gone and what Johnson had said.
The Journal served as a teaser for the longer biography Boswell was preparing for publication, his Life of Samuel Johnson, which would exhibit the same qualities. Boswell's Journal and Johnson's Journey make an interesting study in contrasts. Johnson considers things philosophically and maintains a high level of generality. Boswell's approach is more anecdotal, even gossipy, and succeeds in large part because of Boswell's keen eye and ear for detail. Both accounts are still widely read and admired today.