This has turned out to be a bang-up year for literary biography, with notable new accounts of the lives of Arthur Miller, John Cheever, Arthur Koestler and, particularly, Joseph Frank’s magisterial single-volume distillation of his long years of work on Dostoevsky.
It’s a nearly run thing, but if you’re looking for just one literary life to give as a gift in this holiday season, you won’t go wrong by choosing Michael Slater’s " Charles Dickens.”
To an American audience these days, any mention of Dickens is likely to conjure more images of public television adaptations of his work than the season does sugar plum fairies. Put that all out of your head. Even if you think you know Dickens, you don’t know him in this new and altogether invigorating way. Slater, the emeritus professor of Victorian literature at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, is this era’s preeminent Dickens scholar and author of many volumes on the writer who not only fascinates him but whom he also self-evidently holds in great affection. This new volume, however, is more than a scholarly career’s summation. It gives us a new way of understanding Dickens the protean author by organizing an account of his life around the activity that, in fact, organized his life -- writing (the English edition, in fact, carries the subtitle “A Life Defined by Writing”).
Thus, Slater takes us through each of the works and their composition chronologically. It’s a simple enough thing, but when you combine it with the author’s broad knowledge of the subject, his era and its culture, then the career, the artist and the work conjoin in ways that make you see all three freshly.
It’s impossible not to come away with a sense of awe for not only Dickens’ stunningly voluminous output -- only Shakespeare contributed as much and as memorably to the canon -- but also for the sheer energy and ambition behind it. Dickens led one of those Victorian lives of high-mindedness and indefatigable ambition that we only can imagine. Given the sheer number of his works -- plays, sketches and pamphlets on top of the novels -- and the scope of his activities (frequent travel, acting and dramatic readings of his own works), it remains difficult to believe that he died at just 58. The cause was a series of strokes, but one is reminded of another such tireless Victorian genius, designer, poet and polemicist William Morris, whose physician, when asked the cause of his death, replied: “He died of being William Morris.”
Dickens worked constantly, traveled frequently, researched unceasingly and conducted what by our standards would be a frenetic social life. He also walked 10 to 15 miles a day. He once remarked, “As to repose -- for some men there’s no such thing in life.” The writer’s life, he believed, required “that invincible determination to work” and a “strict attention, perseverance and exertion.”
His social conscience was acute and his convictions firm, but he was nonetheless the prototype of the modern bestselling author, consumed by his sales and copyrights. He also, however, was the first important writer to explicitly acknowledge a sense of responsibility to his readers. Since most of his books were published serially, Dickens frequently availed himself of the opportunity to gauge his public’s response and tailored coming chapters accordingly. In the early chapters of “Oliver Twist,” for example, the repugnant Fagin is referred to 257 times as “the Jew.” When a Jewish woman of his acquaintance wrote to Dickens, complaining he was promoting “vile prejudice,” he altered the later chapters so that Fagin’s ethnicity is hardly mentioned.
Slater also is particularly good on showing just how Dickens’ mode of publication and his lifelong preoccupation with the English and French theater have given his works their enduring attraction. Unauthorized theatrical versions -- particularly in the United States -- were the bane of his existence; thus far there have been more than 150 cinematic adaptations of his novels.
Dickens the successful author and ambitious creative businessman was never more firmly engaged than in the creation of that work that virtually created the English-speaking world’s conception of this season, “A Christmas Carol.” As Slater writes: “The idea of the state as a bad or neglectful parent to the children of the poor was central to his social thinking . . . and shortly after his return from Manchester, the two concerns about childhood and children, the personal and the social seem to have come together in his mind to create ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The basic notion of this ‘Ghost Story of Christ,’ as he subtitled it, derived as has long been recognized from a Christmas tale he wrote for ‘Pickwick’ seven years earlier. . . . Once Dickens had conceived of the more elaborate supernatural machinery of Marley’s ghost and the Christmas Spirits, and also of the definitive mean old skinflint, Ebenezer Scrooge, he had his story, to be presented as ‘A Christmas Carol In Prose,’ divided into five staves like a real carol.”
Dickens completed “the greatest of his five Christmas books” in little more than a month. As he wrote to one of his correspondents, he “wept, and laughed, and wept again,” and excited himself in “a most extraordinary manner in the composition,” walking about the “black streets of London 15 and 20 miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”
As Slater points out, Dickens the socially conscious writer was in a white heat of creativity, while Dickens the businessman with a family that ultimately came to number 10 children, various in-laws and a mistress to support was determined to squeeze as much money as possible from the project. He also was worried that his popularity might be flagging, because his sales figures on “Martin Chuzzlewit” were off. So he renegotiated his deal with his regular publisher and allowed them to bring the new book out on commission.
Dickens paid the production expenses, commissioned the illustrations, picked a binding and colored title page he thought would make an attractive Christmas present and “insisted that the selling price of the book should not exceed five schillings.” It was a Hollywood-style gamble -- and it succeeded. “A Christmas Carol” sold 6,000 copies in five days, extraordinary for the times, and it was critically acclaimed by no less than William Thackeray as “a national benefit and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”
And so it has remained, in some ways, the apotheosis of conscience and ambition that animated this “strange genius.”