Dickens

Ackroyd, Peter

DICKENS Peter Ackroyd/HarperCollins/1,195 pp. $35 Kenneth S. Lynn On workdays, Dickens went to his desk, rather formally dressed, and sat there for five hours, whether or not words flowed from...

...The great virtue of Ackroyd's portrait of an artist caught in an unending struggle with private demons is that it lays the groundwork for a renewed understanding of the novels as personal testaments, rather than as the socialist fables adored by academe...
...but shut your eyes and the illusion is more complete...
...Moreover, there was reason to suspect that the senior Dickens would not be kept on in his job at the Navy Pay Office...
...the scenes of crimes were high on his list of sights' to see, as were jailhouses and prisons...
...M arxist appreciations of Dickens, very popular these days on college campuses, take off from Marx's remark to Engels that his novels "issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together...
...Picking up on that quote, Ackroyd adds that "there is no doubt that there was within Dickens's consciousness a private world built upon nightmares and fantasies and anxieties...
...Himself, in punishment for a multitude of sins...
...The struggle within him seems to have originated in a childhood explosion of anger at his mother...
...and on trips to Paris he repeatedly visited the city morgue, where he lingeringly examined the ghastly faces of the drowned...
...at times, indeed, he seemed overtaken by it...
...Madness was another of his obsessions...
...Famous at twenty-four for the first number of The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), he went on to produce twenty-two more books, many of them huge, start two important magazines, make endless public appearances, travel abroad with considerable frequency, and father ten children...
...uttered in tones in which the agony of fear prevails even over the earnestness of the prayers, the dead dull voice as hope departs, are intensely real...
...In Trollope's concurring opinion, he was "a hearty man...
...In later years, he accused her of having neglected and betrayed him, even as he denounced his THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR MAY 1991 45 wife for her alleged maternal crimes...
...His abandoned wife...
...Even odder was his reaction to the Old South Church...
...Having fallen in love in his mid-forties with Ellen Ternan, who was young enough to have been his daughter, he behaved "like a madman" toward his wife, as one of their daughters was later to say...
...M orbid themes engaged the minds, to be sure, of many Victoriansóbut Dickens's interest in them was obsessive...
...He daunts me...
...It was considerations of family survival, not indifference to her son's sensitivities, that almost surely prompted Mrs...
...In an essay that Thackeray composed for the Cornhill magazine, he pretty clearly was thinking of Dickens as he described a man whose anger is not a brief madness, but a permanent mania...
...His rage is not a fever-fit, but a black poison inflaming him, distorting his judgment, disturbing his rest, embittering his cup, gnawing at his pleasures, causing him more cruel suffering than ever he can inflict on his enemy...
...The novelist's dead mother, about whom he had bitter memories...
...Dickens to urge his return to the warehouse...
...Then the cries for mercy, dear Bill...
...Alexander Blok, the Russian poet, once observed that "in reading Dickens I have felt horror, the equal of which Poe himself does not inspire...
...In Dickens's fiction that idealised family becomes an image of social and religious life...
...Yet a good many of his comic characters are Hogarthian grotesques, and the fun that he has with them is often cruel...
...For a long time he held to the opinion that Bill Sikes's murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist was so "horrible" that his audiences should not be subjected to re-creations of the event...
...Totally unfounded accusations were launched at the poor woman in out-of-control barrages that questioned her love for their children, and darkly referred to her "mental disorder...
...He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left...
...But as Peter Ackroyd demonstrates in his valuable new biography, the symptoms of the novelist's inner turmoil were by no means confined to his fatal inability to relax...
...for dear God's sake...
...A year and a half before his death, however, he suddenly felt impelled to "commit the murder again," as he savagely phrased it in a letter...
...35 Kenneth S. Lynn On workdays, Dickens went to his desk, rather formally dressed, and sat there for five hours, whether or not words flowed from his pen...
...Specifically, he cited his mother's desire to have him sent back to his humiliating job in the blacking warehouse, after a quarrel between his father and the manager of the warehouse had resulted in Charles's dismissal...
...As Ackroyd aptly puts it, "The conclusions of his novels tend . . . to reinstate some idealised family group which can withstand change and the world...
...As for the bonhomie of Dickens the man, Emerson suggested to Fields that it masked an exhaustion of beneficent feeling: You see him quite wrong, evidently, and would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them...
...How, then, could the family afford to dispense with the seven shillings a week that twelveyear-old Charles was earning...
...That his ceaseless activity was self-punishing is evident in the fact of his early death, at fifty-eight, from vascular ailments made worse by overwork, as well as in a confession that he voiced through his fictional counterpart, David Copperfield: "I made it a rule to take as much out of myself as I possibly could, in my way of doing everything to which I applied my energies...
...I made a perfect victim of myself...
...His friend Edmund Yates attended a performance: Kenneth S. Lynn formerly taught English at Harvard and history at Johns Hopkins and is the author, among other works, of Hemingway...
...On the other hand, the Boston publisher James T. Fields called his good friend Dickens "the cheerfulest man of his age...
...This lividly resentful statement did not acknowledge the probability that the financial affairs of Dickens's improvident father, who had only recently been released from debtor's prison, were still imperiled...
...As he walked past proper households, he became oddly excited, to the point where he began pulling the bellhandles on all the doors...
...Possibly the author of Nature was thinking of the novelist's unnatural behavior on the day he arrived in Boston...
...I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am," said Dickens, "but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back...
...Dickens screamed," a witness averred...
...Dickens himself insisted that, even if he were to turn sour, he would still try to "sweeten the lives and fancies of others," and as the creator of the most memorable gallery of comic characters in English fiction he was certainly entitled to that self-defense...
...Gradually warming with excitement he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murder...
...Unhappy family life, in Dickens's view, was the poisoned well out of which all forms of social pathology flowed, and the restoration of familial health was the sine qua non of renewed social health...
...The raised hands, the bent-back head, are good...
...Who was the symbolic target, one has to wonder, of this insensate assault...
...A specter of violent death, for instance, reared up in the public readings from his works that he instituted in his later years...
...When the pleading ceases, you open your eyes in relief, in time to see the impersonation of the murderer seizing a heavy club and striking his victim to the ground...
...He loved the blaze of destructive fires and the grim details of grisly murders...
...In any event, it is no wonder that practically all of this tortured writer's novels focus on the degradation and disintegration of family relationships...
...Dickens's summation of this anguishing episode was, in short, manifestly unfair, which suggests that his quarrel with his mother was rooted in a real or imagined grievance of an earlier time that he was unwilling to discuss...
...I have not the key...
...At two o'clock he arose, sometimes in the midst of writing a sentence, and went for a walk that proceeded at the brisk pace of four-and-a-half miles an hour and quite commonly covered twelve to twenty miles...

Vol. 24 • May 1991 • No. 5


 
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