Yale University Press, 2009
I desire no better for my fame when my personal dustyness shall be past the controul [sic] of my love of order, than such a biographer and such a Critic.
—Charles Dickens to John Forster, 1848.
Charles Dickens always found it hard to keep himself out of his fiction. He composed himself in prose right to the end, writing his will “in his favourite blue ink on a sheet of letter paper”, like one of his novels. Apart from the management of his estate, Dickens’s will, which he knew would be published after his death, perpetuated one of his great themes by attempting to manage the way in which he would enter the memory of his public: “in plain English letters”, as he put it. Dickens’s obsession with order manifests equally in his “nervous habit of placing chairs and tables in precisely the right position before he could get down to a day’s work” and in his compulsive desire to direct the public’s opinion of him. He asked that no public memorial be created in his honour, but it is likely that this was due as much to modesty as to distress at the thought that he wouldn’t be able to oversee every detail. He wanted, in his will, to have the last word on his own life.
His critics have felt this to be so since the beginning. In 1840 for example Thomas Hood wrote in the Athenaeum that “no writer’s personal character seems more identified with his writings than that of Boz.” This sensation saturates the novels and journalism, detected by Hood long before any of the details of “Boz’s” life that we now consider pivotal—the time in Warren’s Blacking, the death of Mary Hogarth, his parents’ imprisonment for debt—were known. A tone of confession, an invitation to intimacy, always comprised a key component of Dickens’s art.
And this, of course, makes Dickens an irresistible subject for biography. Michael Slater’s scrupulous new life of Dickens is maybe the ultimate amplification of Hood’s hunch that to know more of Dickens “the man” is to supply yourself with the best possible key to understanding the things that he wrote. When Slater insists upon Dickens’s attentiveness to “the literal truth underlying his emblematic art”, he is vindicating his own biographical practices by association. The care Slater takes in this task of unpacking and comparing Dickens’s writings of all kinds, and the comprehensiveness with which he executes it, are staggering.
Slater has picked his moment correctly, too. For the first time, Dickens’s letters and his journalism are all available in the Pilgrim scholarly edition, new resources that Slater puts to excellent use. He has marshaled an immense quantity of information resulting in minutely detailed pictures of the development of Dickens’s works.
Take, for example, his focused inspection of Dickens’s composition of Chapter 13 of Martin Chuzzlewit over a few weeks in May, 1843. To begin with, Slater carefully situates his account of this creative spurt amid several months worth of circumstantial details, presenting a dense list of complementary and proposed writings awe-inspiring in its sheer bibliographical thoroughness. In the eight weeks before he begins Chapter 13, Dickens reads a report on “Children’s Employment”, contemplates writing a pamphlet on this issue in a letter to Sydney Smith, rejects the idea four days later, proposing to instead write on the subject at the end of the year (foreshadowing, Slater parenthetically notes, his later interest in Christmas as a setting for social commentary and hortatory tracts). Finally, he opts to treat it in Chuzzlewit, writing of city merchants as “slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle” and exhorting them to go to “the mine, the mill, the forge, the squalid depths of deepest ignorance, and uttermost abyss of man’s neglect”. Slater continues in this rigorous vein for quite some time, finally getting to June a full four paragraphs later.
The interweaving of Dickens’s life and his writing is so compelling as to make rhetorical embroidery beside the point—no finesse is needed. It is in breathless moments like the one cited above that the biography feels most true to Dickens’s own life. “How strange it is”, Dickens remarked, “to be never at rest.” The ferocity of Dickens’s energy and momentum is often astonishing; at its best, Slater’s management of the data of Dickens’s life partakes of a similar energy.
Indeed, it is only when Slater tries to guide the reader too assiduously that he falters. Slater’s own voice most commonly turns up in adverbial insertions that instruct the reader how to take a given fact. That we don’t know precisely when in 1852 Dickens decided he wanted two narrative voices in Bleak House is not simply a missing bit of detail, it is an enticement: we don’t “have no clue”, we “tantalisingly…have no clue”. More substantial commentary tends to be given in parentheses, visually and syntactically separating it from the progress of the main body of the text. When, for instance, Slater repeats Forster’s claim that Dickens took “all the world into his confidence”, he adds that he may have been “(rather overstating his case)”.
In tone this is equal parts comic aside and shy suggestion. At times, too, Slater employs Dickens’s own turns of phrase for colour. That Dickens called his attacks on dysfunctional public institutions “sledge-hammer blows” is repeated half a dozen times. After a certain point, it becomes unclear whether it is Dickens who used phrasing in this recursive way or whether it is Slater himself channeling his subject’s voice.
In general, however, Slater’s reservedness probably reflects his desire to get out of the way of his materials. And indeed the data, under Slater’s sure hand, do stand up for themselves. Unlike Peter Ackroyd, Dickens’s last major biographer, Slater does not wish to conjure up Dickens. Instead, his more modest goal is to present as accurately as possible what we know. The drive to embellish that characterizes Ackroyd’s work is, for Slater, misguided, especially considering the masses of letters, manuscripts, and ephemera that form his most effective building materials. Slater’s Dickens rebuts Lytton Strachey’s famous claim that the history of the Victorian period cannot be written since we know too much about it. On the contrary, Slater makes us feel that we know just enough. For those of us who are excited by the neat arrangement and careful tabulation of gargantuan quantities of detail, Slater’s Dickens is indispensable.
Matt Kerr is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford.