Editorial | Sunday Observer
The Whirling Sound of Planet Dickens
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Published: January 14, 2012
In death, Charles Dickens still keeps his greatest secret to himself — the essence of his energy. None of the physical relics he left behind betray it. The manuscripts of his novels — like “Our Mutual Friend” at the Morgan Library — look no more fevered or hectic than the manuscripts left behind by other novelists.
Times Topic: Charles Dickens
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The handwritten words on the page, round and legible in blue ink, are the marks of a mind that has already settled itself to composition.
Dickens, who was born 200 years ago, wrote a long shelf of novels, 14 in all, not counting “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which lay half-finished at his death. They sit plump and bursting with life, spilling over with the chaos of existence itself. It’s easy to imagine writers working the way Dickens’s prolific contemporary, Anthony Trollope, did — steadily, routinely, knocking off his 2,000 words a day until, by the end of his life, he had written 47 novels. But this is not how Dickens wrote.
Find the tumultuous heart of your favorite Dickens novel, the place where 19th-century London seems to be seething, smoking, overcrowded, in a state of vulgar contradiction. Then imagine Dickens working in the midst of it — a small, brisk figure rushing past you on a dark and dirty street. He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism, calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, “I should just explode and perish.”
Under the pseudonym Boz, he wrote, “There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy,” walking through London as though “the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.” Yet there was nothing remotely solitary about Dickens. One person who saw him in the highest spirits at a family party wrote that he “happily sang two or three songs, one the patter song, ‘The Dog’s Meat Man,’ and gave several successful imitations of the most distinguished actors of the day.”
It’s a wonder Dickens didn’t explode and perish long before his death in 1870, at age 58. Quite apart from the act of composing his novels, he was a whirlwind, living a life that is nearly unmatched in its vigor. He had one entire career as a magazine editor, another as an actor and manager of theatrical productions, still another as a philanthropist and social reformer. The record of his private engagements alone — dinners, outings, peregrinations with his entourage of family and friends — is exhausting to read. The novels stand out against the backdrop of hundreds of other compositions, all of them written against tight deadlines.
Dickens’s energy, which he made no effort to husband until he was nearly dead, was inexplicable. Call it metabolic if you like. Perhaps it was a reaction to the uncertainties of his childhood and the shame of his days as a child laborer, when he knew that as a precocious young entertainer he was already a spectacle well worth observing.
He was driven by gargantuan emotions, and the ferocious will needed to keep them in check, to release them in the creation of characters he loved more than some of his children. He could drive himself to anguished tears while writing the death of Little Nell, in “The Old Curiosity Shop.” And yet he could also coldly disown anyone who sided with his wife, Catherine, when they separated, including his namesake son.
Even Dickens didn’t understand his energy. He grasped that there was a wildness in him, and so did nearly everyone who knew him. When Dostoevsky met Dickens in 1862 — a meeting that is hard to imagine — Dickens explained that there were two people inside him, “one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.”
Out of these two people he constructed his universe of characters, good and evil. Dostoevsky’s comment is laconic and ambiguous. “Only two people?” he asked. Dickens’s public readings, which began in 1858, drew tens of thousands of people in England and America. They came not only to see the author himself but also the people who inhabited him — Scrooge and Pickwick, Micawber and Mrs. Gamp.
Those characters, and dozens more, still live with all their old vitality. And though we feel the unevenness of Dickens’s novels more plainly than when they were appearing in monthly parts, it’s easier now to see that the unevenness in most of them is symptomatic of his overpowering energy.
The man himself was uneven and could not be beaten into consistency any more than he could beat every one of his novels into perfection. The fact is that Charles Dickens was as Dickensian as the most outrageous of his characters, and he was happy to think so, too. Soon after the publication of “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, he wrote of himself to a close friend: “two and thirty years ago, the planet Dick appeared on the horizon. To the great admiration, wonder and delight of all who live, and the unspeakable happiness of mankind.” Planet Dickens feels as real as it does to us because he stalked the world around him.And when he finally settled at his desk, he was still driving himself through a world of his own invention, peopled by characters waiting, as he said, to come “ready made to the point of the pen.”