Charles Dickens (pronounced
The defining experience of his childhood, which some consider the key to his genius, was, shortly before his father’s incarceration for debts in the Marshalsea, his employment at the age of twelve at Warren’s, where he glued labels on shoe polish jars for more than a year. Although he returned to school for almost three years, his education remained sketchy and his great culture was mainly due to his own efforts.
He founded and published several weekly newspapers, wrote fifteen major novels, five smaller books (novellas), hundreds of short stories and articles on literary and social topics. His passion for the theater led him to write and direct plays, act and give public readings of his works, which, in often grueling tours, quickly became extremely popular in Britain and the United States.
Charles Dickens was a tireless advocate for children’s rights, education for all, the status of women and many other causes, including prostitutes.
He is appreciated for his humor, his satire of morals and characters. His works were almost all published in weekly or monthly serials, a genre he himself inaugurated in 1836: this format is restrictive but it allows to react quickly, even if it means changing the action and the characters along the way. The plots were well thought out and often enriched by contemporary events, even if the story took place earlier.
Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol had a wide international impact, and the whole of his work was praised by renowned writers, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George Orwell, for its realism, comic wit, art of characterization and sharpness of satire. Some, however, such as Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde or Henry James, criticized him for lacking consistency in style, for favoring the sentimental vein and for being satisfied with superficial psychological analyses.
Dickens has been translated into many languages, with his approval for the first French versions. His work, constantly republished, is still being adapted for the theater, the cinema, the music hall, radio and television.
The most authoritative biography of Dickens, published after his death, is John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens: a close friend, confidant and adviser, his account, writes Graham Smith, “has an intimacy that only a cultured Victorian and author himself could bring. Yet, as became known much later, Forster altered or erased anything that might have seemed awkward in his time. Dickens, a god for England and beyond, was thus presented as a blameless man, especially since he himself orchestrated the score of his life: he wanted Forster to be his biographer, and their copious exchange of letters served to sculpt the statue of a commander; as did his Autobiographical Fragments, devoted to his childhood in 1824 and also entrusted to Forster shortly after March or April 1847, which paint him as a victim in vignettes maximizing threat and danger, hence anguish and suffering.
Childhood and early adolescence
Charles Dickens was born at 13 Mile End Terrace in Landport, a small suburb of Portsmouth, Portsea, on Friday, February 7, 1812, to a family of little means. He was the second of eight children, but the first son, of John Dickens (1785-1851) and Elizabeth Dickens, née Barrow (1789-1863). He was baptized on March 4 in St Mary’s Church, Kingston, Portsea. His father was in charge of the pay of the crews at the Navy Pay Office of the Royal Navy, but after Waterloo and the end of the war in America, the naval base was downsized and he was transferred to London. In January 1815, he moved to Norfolk Street, near Oxford Street. Charles, from his brief stay in Portsmouth, retains a few memories, including a shooting. From London, which the child frequented from the age of three to four, he kept the image of a visit to Soho Square and the memory of a purchase: a Harlequin wand. In April 1817, a new transfer sent the family to the Medway Arsenal in Chatham, Kent. The family moved to 2 Ordnance Street, in a comfortable house, with two servants, the young Mary Weller, the child’s nurse, and Jane Bonny, already of advanced age.
Soon, after attending Sunday school with his sister Fanny, to whom he is very close, he is enrolled in the institution of William Giles, son of a Baptist minister, who finds him brilliant; Charles reads the novels of Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and Oliver Goldsmith, who will remain his teachers. The siblings are happy despite the premature deaths: besides “Charley,” the older sister Frances (Fanny) (1810-1848), and the younger ones, Alfred Allen, who died at a few months old, Letitia Mary (1816-1893), Harriet, who also died as an infant, Frederick William (Fred) (1820-1868), Alfred Lamert (1822-1860), and Augustus (1827-1866), to whom James Lamert, a relative, and Augustus Newnham, a Chatham orphan, are added. The older children engaged in mime games, poetry recitals, folk song concerts and also theatrical performances. The child was free to roam the countryside, either alone or on long walks with his father or Mary Weller, then thirteen years old, more rarely in the company of Jane Bonny, or to observe the activity of the port city. Later, in his descriptions of rural landscapes, it was the images of Kent that he took as his model. This period,” he wrote, “was the happiest of my childhood.” Indeed, it was in Chatham that Charles made his literary debut, writing skits that he performed in the kitchen or standing on a table at the nearby inn.
This carefree life and early education came to an abrupt end when the family had to move to London with a reduction in salary, a prelude to financial decline. Charles, aged ten, stayed in Chatham for a few months with William Giles, then went to the capital, leaving this disillusioned memory of the journey: “In all the years since, have I ever lost the damp smell of the straw where I was thrown, like a game, and carried, free of port, to Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside, London? There were no other passengers inside and I wolfed down my sandwiches in the loneliness and the dreariness, and the rain kept falling, and I found life much uglier than I expected.”
This fall has to be qualified with regard to the family context, representative of the Victorian petty bourgeoisie. The paternal grandparents had been servants at the top of the hierarchy, housekeeper and butler, which earned them the respect of their masters. In The House of Bitter Wind, Sir Lester Dedlock is constantly praising Mrs. Rouncewell, his housekeeper in Chesney Wold.
This small prosperity and the influence they enjoyed served as a springboard for their son John’s social ascent. His job represented an enviable position in the Victorian bureaucracy, with several promotions and an annual salary rising from £200 in 1816 to £441 in 1822. It was a good job, a permanent one, with the favor of the superiors, acquired by diligence and competence. Well resolved to climb the social ladder but “inconsiderately short-sighted” according to Peter Ackroyd, he proved unable to manage his money. By 1819, he had already incurred a debt of £200, almost half his annual salary, and caused a falling out with his brother-in-law who had stood as guarantor; other debts were outstanding in Chatham, resulting in a descent into hell, aggravated by moves, a poorly paid transfer to expensive London, leading to new debts and a lifestyle that was gradually reduced to nothing. In 1822, the Dickens family moved to Camden Town, the edge of the capital, and John Dickens placed his hopes in his wife’s plan to open a school. So the family moved again at Christmas 1823 to 4 Gower Street, a wealthy house that could accommodate residential students. The school, however, attracted no one, and after a few weeks, the family’s income plummeted to poverty.
While his older sister enters the Conservatory of Music where she studies until 1827, Charles, twelve years old and missing school, spends his time “cleaning boots. James Lamert builds a miniature theater, enough to fire the imagination, as do visits to Godfather Huffam who supplies the boats, or to Uncle Barrow above a bookstore whose barber is Turner’s father, or to Grandmother Dickens who gives a silver watch and tells fairy tales and bits of history, no doubt used in Barnaby Rudge (Gordon’s riots) and Tale of Two Cities (the French Revolution). Fifteen months later, Charles’ life suddenly changes and is forever altered.
In early 1824, James Lamert offered the boy a job, which his parents eagerly took up, and Charles entered Warren’s Blacking Factory in Hungerford Stairs, in the Strand. It was a shoe-shine and dye warehouse where he had to spend ten hours a day gluing labels on bottles for 6 shillings a week, enough to help his family and pay his rent to Mrs. Ellen Roylance, a friend later immortalized, with “some changes and embellishments,” as Mrs. Pipchin of Dombey and Son. He then rented a dark garret from Archibald Russell in Lant Street, Southwark. Archibald Russell, “a stout old gentleman,” says John Forster, “of a happy nature, full of goodness, with an old and quiet wife, and a particularly naive adult son,” works as a clerk in the Insolvency Court: this family may have inspired the Garlands of The Antique Shop, while the court was copied in the trial scenes of The Pickwick Club’s Posthumous Papers.
On February 20, 1824, John Dickens was arrested for a £40 debt to a baker and incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. All his possessions, including books, were seized, and soon his wife and youngest children joined him. On Sundays, Charles and his sister Frances spend the day at the prison. This experience serves as the backdrop for the first half of Little Dorrit, which presents Mr. William Dorrit locked up for debt in the prison where his daughter Amit, the novel’s heroine, is growing up. After three months, during which his mother dies, John Dickens inherits £450, plus some freelance work for the British Press and a disability pension of £146 from the Admiralty. On promise of payment at the end of the estate, he was released on May 28, and the family took refuge with Mrs. Roylance for a few months, then found lodging in Hampstead and finally in Johnson Street in Somers Town. Charles remained at the factory which, in a new humiliation, transferred him to a store window in Chandos Street. It is only in March 1825 that John Dickens, because he quarrels with the owner and despite the intercession of Mrs Dickens who tries to calm things down, takes his son out of the shop and puts him back to school.
This episode in his life represented a trauma for Dickens from which he never recovered. Although he transposed it in David Copperfield through Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse and alluded to it in Great Expectations (the “Blacking Ware’us”), he did not open up about it to anyone except his wife and Forster, who was always astonished that anyone had ever heard of it. he did not open up to anyone but his wife and Forster, who was always amazed that he could be so easily disposed of, and his task, Forster writes, seemed particularly off-putting: “It was a dilapidated old house falling into ruin, which naturally led to the Thames, and was literally in the power of rats My work consisted in covering the pots of shoe polish, first with a piece of oiled paper, then with a piece of blue paper; tying them up in a circle with a string, and then cutting the paper neatly all round, until the whole had the coquettish appearance of a jar of ointment bought at the druggist. When a number of large jars had reached this point of perfection, I had to glue a printed label on each one, and move on to other jars.”
Louis Cazamian recalls that “the coarseness of the environment, of the comrades, the sadness of those hours in the depths of a squalid workshop bruise the instinctive ambition of the child”. No words can express the secret agony of my soul in falling into such a society,” writes Dickens, “and in feeling the hopes I had had early, of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, dashed in my heart.” Also, adds Cazamian, “the memory of this ordeal will haunt him forever. He will associate to it the regret of his abandoned childhood, of his missed education. From there, his constant effort to erase the past, the search for clothing, the attention to the refinements of personal politeness. Hence also the melancholic pages each time he traces the sorrow of a child. The manual work left him the impression of a stain”.
Dickens adds in the Autobiographical Extracts: “I write without rancor, without anger, for I know that all that has happened has shaped the man I am. But I have forgotten nothing, I shall never forget, it is impossible for me to forget, for example, that my mother was very anxious that I should go back to Warren’s house”, a new wound that explains the young children abandoned or left to their own devices with whom he has populated his work, Oliver, Nell, Smike, Jo, David, Amit, Pip, etc.
Often decried from her son’s commentary, Elizabeth Dickens finds herself in some of the characters of scatterbrained women, such as Nicholas Nickleby’s mother. Graham Smith writes that Dickens’ resentment remains objectively unfair. His mother taught him the basics of education, reading, writing, history, Latin; witnesses praise her sense of humor, grotesquerie, acting and mimicry, all gifts passed on to her son. Of all this, he concludes, Dickens profited, but never acknowledged his debt.
Graham Smith also discusses Dickens’ feelings: adored and cherished by his family, he explains, he was treated better than the little wretches working alongside him, who were rather kind to him, especially a certain Bob Fagin. To be objective, however, is to bracket the expectations of this twelve-year-old super-gifted. If not for his father’s troubles, he would have been promised to Oxford or Cambridge. But he never left the uniform of the little worker and he populated his work with incompetent parents, with the exception of his adoptive parents, Mr. Jarndyce or Joe Gargery. David Copperfield has as his hero a boy, left to a cruel stepfather, who cries out, “I had no guide or counsel, no encouragement and no consolation, not the slightest support from anyone, nothing I could remember.” Thus, by John Forster, by some of his fellow writers, Wilkie Collins in particular, Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, and by himself as well, Dickens’s life has gradually been transformed into a legend, even a myth, that of the typical great Victorian, energetic, creative, enterprising, self-made man. Dickens never ceased to add fuel to the fire: even at Warren’s, he wrote, he made the effort to work as well as and even better than his fellow workers.
In 1825, Charles returned to school at the Wellington School Academy in Hampstead Road, where he studied for some two years and won the Latin prize. The institution was not to his liking: “Many aspects,” he wrote, “of the ramshackle, disjointed teaching and lax discipline punctuated by the sadistic brutality of the principal, the ragged attendants, and the general atmosphere of decay are represented in Mr. Creakle’s establishment.”
There his formal education ended, for in 1827 he entered the world of work, his parents having secured for him a clerkship in the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore, Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn, where he worked from May 1827 to November 1828 at tedious tasks but, writes Michael Allen, “one which he was able to put to good use in his work. He then joined Charles Molloy’s firm in Lincoln’s Inn. Three months later, at just seventeen years of age, he demonstrated, according to Michael Allen, a great deal of self-confidence as he embarked, presumably without his parents’ approval, on a career as a freelance stenographer at Doctors’ Commons, where he shared a practice with a distant cousin, Thomas Carlton. With the help of his uncle J. H. Barrow, he learned shorthand by the Gurney method, described in David Copperfield as “that savage shorthand mystery,” and in a letter to Wilkie Collins of June 6, 1856, he recalls that he applied himself to it from the age of fifteen with “heavenly or devilish energy” and was the “best shorthand writer in the world.” By 1830, in addition to the records of Doctors’ Commons, he was adding “to his repertoire” chronicles of debates in the House of Commons for the Mirror of Parliament and the True Sun. Over the next four years, he established a solid reputation as one of the best reporters and was hired full-time by the Morning Chronicle. This legal and journalistic experience was put to good use in Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Sons, and especially The House of Bitter Wind, whose fierce satire of the slow pace of the courts drew public attention to the burden of going to court on the lowly.
The young maturity
These years brought Dickens, explains Michael Allen, in addition to a good knowledge of the provinces (Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter, Hemlsford and Kettering), with stagecoaches, inns and horses, an intimacy with London which became “the swirling center of his life”. He also deepened his love of the theater (Shakespeare, music hall, farce or drama), which he frequented, according to Forster, almost every day and of which he knew actors and musicians, often introduced by his sister Fanny. Even though he chose letters with some hesitation, Michael Allen adds, he gave himself away in performance, taking care of his clothing to the point of extravagance, very flashy (“showy”), and he observed people, imitating accents, mimicking mannerisms, all of which are found in his books.
1830: Charles Dickens is eighteen years old and falls in love with Maria Beadnell, a year older than him. His father, a senior bank clerk in Mansion House, a small town in Lombard Street, a prestigious district of the City of London, did not appreciate this friendship, or even a future marriage, with an obscure journalist, the son of an ex-convict in a prison for debts, with whom he had moved seven times in the face of creditors, to finally live alone in Furnival’s Inn in 1834. So the Beadnells sent their daughter to a school in Paris, and Charles could only write heated letters. “I have loved and can love no other living person than you,” he wrote to her, but Maria, unsympathetic to his “stream of mediocre poetry,” did not make a commitment. The couple met again on the return of the girl, whose lack of ardor, however, eventually wearied Dickens: shortly after her twenty-first birthday, he sent back letters and gifts with these words: “Our meetings have lately been little more than manifestations of cruel indifference on the one hand, and on the other, they have only led to the feeding of the sorrow of a relationship which has long since become more than hopeless.” Long afterwards, he confided to John Forster that his love had occupied him “entirely for four years, and that he was still dazed by it.” This failure “determined him to overcome all obstacles and pushed him to his vocation as a writer. Maria served as a model for the character of Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield (1850), charming but scatterbrained, and unable to manage her household.
Yet, “What interests the reader most,” writes Graham Smith, “is that Maria, now Mrs. Winter, mother of two daughters, reappears in Dickens’s life in 1855”: on February 9, two days late, she writes to him on the occasion of his forty-third birthday, and Dickens, married and father of nine living children, getting caught up in the game, “conducts at a distance, with great feeling and a little derision, an almost childish flirtation. The adventure will have a grotesque epilogue (see Un mariage de plus en plus chancelant), but the theme, already sketched in David Copperfield, arises “of frustration in love, of sexual misery”: Maria, the former Dora, then becomes Flora Finching (1855).
Dickens’ first pages appeared in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833, to which were added six issues, five unsigned and the last one, in August 1834, signed with the pseudonym Boz. Their originality attracted the attention of the Morning Chronicle, whose music and art critic was George Hogarth, father of the young Catherine whom Charles had just met; the new writer was hired there for £273 a year. The Morning Chronicle soon published five “street sketches” under the same pseudonym, and their originality was such that the sister journal, the Evening Chronicle, which George Hogarth had joined, accepted the offer of twenty more with an increase in salary from 5 to 7 guineas per week. Success was immediate, and when the series ended in September 1835, Dickens turned to Bell’s Life in London, which paid him even more. Soon after, the publisher John Macrone offered to publish the sketches in volume with illustrations by George Cruikshank, an offer accompanied by an advance of £100, which was immediately accepted.
1835 was a good year: in February the first series of Boz’s Sketches was published and immediately Chapman and Hall offered Dickens The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in twenty installments, the first of which started on March 31. In May, he agreed to write a three-volume novel for Macrone and, three months later, he signed on for two more with Richard Bentley. Eleven new sketches are published, mostly in the Morning Chronicle, plus a political pamphlet, Sunday under Three Heads, and two plays, The Strange Gentleman in September and The Village Coquette in December. In November, he took over the monthly Bentley’s Miscellany, and the following month a second series of Sketches was published. Meanwhile, the story of Mr. Pickwick became so popular that Dickens’ reputation reached its zenith, his finances prospered, and his authority grew. The downside was that not all commitments could be honored and endless negotiations with publishers ensued, often resulting in falling out. Dickens decided to devote himself entirely to literature and resigned from the Morning Chronicle. The crowning moment of this whirlwind was the meeting, in December 1836, of John Forster, author, critic, literary adviser, soon to be his close friend, confidant and future first biographer.
Charles Dickens fell in love with Catherine, the eldest daughter of George Hogarth, with whom he worked and whose family he often visited. According to the critics, Catherine is described as “young, pleasant, cheerful, careful, active, quiet”, or “a little woman, scarcely pretty, with sleepy blue eyes, snub nose, and a chin that runs away from people without a will”. Dickens’ letters to her are not as passionate as those he wrote to Maria Beadnell. He saw in Catherine, he wrote, “a source of comfort and rest, a person to whom to turn by the fireside, when work is done, to draw in charming ways the recreation and happiness that the sad solitude of a bachelor apartment never provides. Engaged in 1835, the young couple were married on April 2, 1836 in St. Luke’s Church in Chelsea. The honeymoon, a week, was spent at Chalk near Gravesend, Kent, then the couple moved to Furnival’s Inn before settling in Bloomsbury. It was at Chalk that Dickens found the blacksmith shop where Joe Gargery, Pip’s uncle, worked, and it was there that he wrote the first issues of his Pickwick Papers.
The marriage was initially reasonably happy and children soon arrived: Charles after nine months, Mary the following year and Kate in 1839. The family changed residences over the years and seasonally, mostly near the Strand and on the north side of Oxford Street, with two trips to Hampstead. One of these homes was 48 Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens Museum, where, from 1837 to 1839, Dickens wrote his first major works and entertained many of his writer friends. Vacations were often spent in Broadstairs, in the large house now called Bleak House, on the Isle of Thanet, at the tip of Kent. In 1838, Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby with, in conclusion, a vision of marital bliss, the two heroes loving each other in an idyllic countryside with several children, mirror, according to Jane Smiley, of the author’s dream life.
It is however at the end of these years of feverish activity that marital difficulties begin to appear. One of them is born from a family drama.
Mary Scott Hogarth (1820-1837) came to live with the Dickens family in February 1837 to help her sister who was pregnant again. Charles became idolized by this teenage girl who, according to Fred Kaplan, became “a close friend, an exceptional sister, a companion in the home. On May 6, 1837, after returning from an outing, “went up to her room in perfect health and, as usual, in excellent spirits. Before she could undress, she was taken by a violent illness and died, after a night of agony, in my arms during the afternoon at 3 o’clock. Everything that could be done to save her was done. The men of art think she had a heart disease. Dickens took off a ring that he wore for the rest of his life and kept all her clothes. This was the only time he was unable to write and missed the delivery of two publications, Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers. He wrote the epitaph, naming his first daughter “Mary”: “I don’t think there ever was such a love as I had for her”, he confided to his friend Richard Jones. Catherine also mourned the death of her sister, but felt bitter at seeing her husband still mourning, dreaming of Mary every night month after month. On February 29, 1842, he wrote to John Forster that she remained for him “the guiding spirit of his life, pointing inflexibly upward for more than four years.
Mary appears as a palimpsest on which Dickens inscribed his image of femininity, then projected in his characters, at first rather hollow as in Rose Maylie, a little less so with Esther Summerson and the eponymous heroine Amy Dorrit, to whom are added Little Nell and Agnes Wickfield. Thus, the scroll has filled in, the character complexified, still “angel of the home” but with initiative, good sense and, perhaps, some desires.
Catherine was responsible for hosting receptions and dinners, some of them quite large, with literary celebrities such as Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Elizabeth Gaskell and Samuel Rogers. Mrs. Carlyle and Mrs. Gaskell recounted their memories of a reception and had nothing but praise for Mrs. Dickens’ hosting skills and cooking.
In 1841, she accompanied her husband to Scotland where the couple was received with respect, and in February of the following year, Dickens prepared for a trip across the Atlantic and finally decided to accompany him. In Boston, the Dickenses were immediately acclaimed, and in New York, the pressure was even greater. In Canada, they were received by “the elite of society” and admired Niagara Falls, whose crashing sound brought echoes of Mary’s voice to Dickens; they participated in theatrical productions. Throughout, Catherine “performs her duties as a famous man’s wife with great grace and charm. Upon their return in June, Dickens ridiculed the Americans in his American Notes, and then in the second part of Martin Chuzzlewit. Soon after, the family moved to Italy for a year, but Dickens made solitary trips to Paris and Boulogne-sur-Mer, which he particularly liked.
Unsympathetic to his difficulties, Dickens scolded his wife, complaining of her lack of energy and repeated pregnancies. In 1851, shortly after the birth of his ninth child, Catherine fell ill, and the following year Edward, his last, arrived. Dickens “becomes more and more unstable and unpredictable” and opens up about his confusion to Wilkie Collins: “The good old days, the good old days! Will I ever get back to the state of mind I was in then, I wonder… I feel as if the skeleton in my domestic cupboard is getting awfully big.” Dickens also tries to get his wife committed to an asylum, but without success.
The maturity of an artist
Dickens was at the height of his popularity, which would never wane. At once, he wrote Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, then tackled Nicholas Nickleby, followed in cascade by The Antique Shop and Barnaby Rudge, presented in what Graham Smith calls “that artificial and unsuccessful publication vehicle” that was Master Humphrey’s Clock. This output was partly due to the demands of monthly serial publication, but the dynamism was exceptional: Dickens at the same time published a small burletta, Is She his Wife? and short collections, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, not to mention revisions of Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi and the parody Pic-nic papers, undertaken to help the widow of John Macrone, the editor of Boz’s Sketches, who had died at the age of twenty-eight.
John Forster captured this energy at all times: “the quickness, the ardor and practical power, the curious, feverish, energetic gait on every aspect as of a man of action and business thrown into the world. The light and the movement sprang from all sides in him it was the life and the soul of fifty living beings “. The sales testify to the public’s infatuation, they keep growing (only Barnaby Rudge suffers a drop to 30,000): 7,500 for Oliver Twist, 50,000 for the first issue of Nicholas Nickleby, 60,000 for Master Humphrey’s Clock, 100,000 for the end of The Antique Shop; and the literary world, with a few exceptions including Charlotte Brontë, who prefers him to Thackeray, praises him. Michael Allen writes that comparisons abound: the soul of Hogarth, the Cruikshank of writers, the Constable of the novel, the equal of Smollett, Sterne, Fielding, a new Defoe, the heir to Goldsmith, the English Cervantes, a Washington Irving, Victor Hugo, Wordsworth, Carlyle and even Shakespeare. His former master at Chatham addresses him with the epithet “inimitable” associated with Boz: Dickens makes it his own and calls it his life.
Invitations were pouring in: co-option by the Garrick Club and the Athenaeum, electoral constituency – refused because Dickens demanded a seat made to measure -, Edinburgh franchise (June 1841), gala dinners, lectures where he shone with intelligence and virtuosity, collected in Speeches. In Edinburgh, where he was received by Lord Jeffrey, he was acclaimed in the theater by a standing crowd, while the orchestra played an impromptu “Charley is my Darling. The cities were covered with portraits of Pickwick or Nickleby, on earthenware, clothing, posters and placards, and Dickens’ own face, now popularized by Maclise and Francis Alexander, was known throughout the nation and across the Atlantic. Many observers predicted a parabolic outcome: “He flew like a rocket; he will fall like a piece of wood,” predicted Abraham Hayward as early as October 1837. Yet Dickens did not falter and became a collaborator or friend of most of the great journalists and authors, such as Leigh Hunt, William Harrison Ainsworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Albany Fontblanque, Douglas Jerrold, Walter Savage Landor, etc. As Michael Allen writes, his creative energy has only increased tenfold and commentators now hail this voice whose originality speaks to all.
The children have followed each other practically from year to year and their father is very interested in them as children, neglecting them afterwards as they struggle to reach the level they had hoped for and often require his financial help. They were not the only ones: parents, brothers and sisters, all turned to this new fortunate. Dickens had a relationship with his father tinged with affection and distrust: until about 1839, he often invited him to the theater, to dinners, on vacation, to meetings with friends; then, John Dickens, whose journalistic activities were drying up, was carried away by his son’s whirlwind and resumed his bad habits. Charles became aware of this in March and moved his parents to Exeter, Devonshire, away from the temptations of London and the creditors. For about £400, he paid off the debts and expenses of the new home. The stay lasts for three years, until one day, at the height of his exasperation, he realizes that John has accumulated other debts, secretly sells samples of his manuscripts or his signature, seeks the publisher of the local newspaper, solicits his own bank and his friend Macready. He then publishes a warning that the debts circulating in his name will not be honored. He thought of exiling his father abroad, but when he returned from America in 1842, he ended up repatriating the impecunious family not far from him. The imprudence resumed and Charles, although trying to give the change, sometimes let his anger burst: in September 1843, he wrote to John Forster that he was “confounded by the audacity of his ingratitude”, that it was “an unbearable cross to bear” which “demoralizes him completely and whose burden becomes intolerable”. From then on, he assumed the role of head of the family, took care of the siblings’ education, found them work, guided and reprimanded them, took them on vacation, installed them and, if one of them disappeared, ensured the well-being of his family. According to Michael Allen, Dickens found time and money for all of them, “but paid a heavy price of anxiety over their antics”: Fred marries an eighteen-year-old girl, separates from her, is convicted of adultery and prosecuted, refuses to pay, quits his job and flees abroad; arrested on his return, he is imprisoned, sinks into alcoholism and dies at 48; Augustus leaves his wife who has become blind after two years, emigrates to America with another woman, dies at 39 in Chicago, where his concubine commits suicide the following year.
Upon returning from America, the place of his sister-in-law, Georgina, grows. Now Aunt Georgy, she takes care of the boys, teaching them to read before they enter school, and often takes the place of honor at parties. She is helped by a maid, Anne Cornelius, whose daughter later attends a school in North London where two, and later three, of Dickens’ nieces are also educated and who pays all the fees. Georgina was a servant, tutor and housekeeper, a status far superior to that of Anne Cornelius, who traveled in second class while the family was in first. She sometimes accompanied Dickens on his long walks and increasingly shared his theatrical and even literary activities, serving as his secretary when, from 1851 to 1853, he wrote his famous History of England for children. Dickens tried to marry her, proposing to her good-looking men, such as Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863), a student at the London School of Fine Arts and a future famous painter. He also shared the stage with Dickens during his productions, for which he often designed the costumes: Georgina refused them all, and her brother-in-law, jaded, wrote to a friend, when she had reached the age of 33: “I doubt very much that she will ever marry.”
The most crucial moment in Georgina’s life coincides with the most crucial moment in Dickens’ life, when, fed up with his wife, he decides to separate from her.
1858 : the separation from Catherine Dickens
Dickens, no longer seeing his wife with his young man’s eyes, speaking of her with contempt to his friends, finding also that she does not care enough for the children, seeks consolation elsewhere. When Maria Beadnell, now Mrs. Henry Winter, wife of a merchant and mother of two daughters, remembers him, he begins to dream that he still loves her, meets her secretly, then invites her to dinner with her husband. The meeting turns into a disaster, and Dickens, judging his attempt to be “absurd”, swears that “he will not be seen again”. Mrs. Dickens, for her part, was not without bitterness when Georgina supplanted her at home and, from 1850 on, suffered from melancholy and mental confusion, aggravated in 1851 after the birth of Dora, who died at eight months. In 1857, the couple lived separately, although Dickens insisted on keeping up appearances. The family spent a few happy moments at Gads Hill’s Place, but the respites were short-lived and soon it seemed impossible to continue their life together.
In the spring of 1858, a gold bracelet, misdirected by the jeweler, accidentally returned to Tavistock House. Catherine accused her husband of having an affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan, which Dickens denied, claiming that he was in the habit of rewarding his best performers. In order to initiate divorce proceedings under the recently passed Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, Catherine’s mother and maternal aunt, Helen Thompson, insisted that evidence of adultery be sought against Ellen Ternan and also against Georgina Hogarth, who, after working to save the marriage, had sided with Dickens. To cut short the rumors, Dickens had a certificate drawn up declaring her virgo intacta. On May 29, 1858, a document stating the impossibility of living together was signed by the couple and initialed by Mrs. Hogarth and Helen Thompson. Dickens asked his wife in writing if she objected to a joint declaration being made public; the first appeared on June 12 in Household Words, reproduced by many daily and weekly newspapers, including The Times, and another in the New York Tribune.
Soon Catherine went to live with her son Charley at 70 Gloucester Crescent, with an annuity of £600. She was never allowed to set foot in the family home again, nor to appear before her husband, who had retired with the other children and Georgina to Gad’s Hill Place, where he wrote his works in a reconstructed Swiss chalet in the middle of the garden. She did not lack defenders, among them William Makepeace Thackeray or Angela Burdett-Coutts, a lifelong friend who separated from Dickens.
Georgina’s “betrayal” prompts Graham Smith to probe her motives: dismissing the idea that she secretly loved her brother-in-law with anything other than affection, he thinks she must have been concerned about the now “motherless” children, and enjoyed living with such a renowned writer and the company he keeps. As for Dickens, Graham Smith sees in the sobriquet he gives her, “the virgin,” the key to his attitude: disregarding convention, he found in her his ideal of a housewife, as he describes her in Agnes Wickfield, “angelic, but competent at home.”
A hard and fruitful work
Quiet or hectic, each year brought its share of hard work and success. The Dickens family often changed homes, and in 1842, on his return from America, Charles uprooted his family and went to live in Genoa, from where he returned after a year with his Pictures from Italy. The following year, he spent several months in Switzerland and then in Paris, but these absences were not without repercussions, misunderstandings and disagreements with his publishers.
In 1850, Dickens was photographed for the first time on a daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet: an image of a respectable man, solid, clean-shaven, severe in face and elegant in dress, a portrait of a businessman; he appears tall, although he is only five feet eight inches tall, or 1.72 meters; a certain solemnity permeates his features, which will harden into a premature aging. Bereavements, apart from worries, followed one another in his life: the loss of his sister Fanny at the age of thirty-eight in 1848, soon followed by the loss of his little Dora in 1850, and then of his father in 1851. It was a time of introspection when he began to write an autobiography, and then confided in the first person in David Copperfield, “of all my books, the one I love the most”, which was only deciphered after the publication of the biography by John Forster.
Earlier, in 1843, he had entered the hearts of the masses with A Christmas Carol, a subject already addressed in his Boz Sketches and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, but which, along with Tiny Tin, Scrooge, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, promoted his fame to universality. A small book that was immediately proposed for the stage, and which is still the most adapted of all, it associates Christmas and Dickens in the collective consciousness, especially since, from 1850 to 1867, each end of the year brings its new offering.
From 1846 to 1858, in collaboration with Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), he created Urania Cottage, an institution intended to take in so-called “lost” women, an achievement which, during the twelve years of its management, allowed a hundred boarders to reintegrate into society. Unlike other institutions of this type based on repression, he chose to educate them through reading, writing, home management and, above all, a trade. While cutting them off from their environment, he intended to “magically” transform the outcasts with new habits and principles, an experience, writes Jenny Hartley, that “was like writing a novel, but with real people.
Dickens had always enjoyed the stage. At his parents’ home in Bentinck House, he created a small family company, and at the Queen’s Theatre in Montreal in 1842, he helped the garrison officers, The Goldstream Guards, put on a show. In 1845, and then in the 1850s, gathering professional actors and friends, he began directing and producing, even taking part, as Captain Bobadill, in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour at the Royalty Theatre, 73 Dean Street, Soho. Decor, acting, props, make-up, costumes, he enjoyed his work in front of the public, his company attracted attention and was often asked to perform in London and in the provinces (Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool), in Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow). In 1851, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was added to the repertoire and a new play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Not so Bad as We Seem, was performed before more than 1200 spectators in Sunderland where, as the new theater was considered unsafe, Dickens placed Catherine and Georgina off stage. Each time, a few short farces are given as an encore, where Dickens, changing quickly from one costume to another, plays several characters, all in good fun and without profit, the receipts going to charities, especially the Guild of Literature and Art, founded with Lytton for needy actors. Even Queen Victoria was won over and made it known in the spring of 1857 that she would be pleased to see a performance of The Frozen Deep.
1851 was the year Dickens acquired Gad’s Hill Place near Rochester, at whose gate Charles and his father had stopped with envy some thirty years earlier. The area, “the birthplace of his imagination,” became a new source of inspiration: Chatham, Rochester, and the surrounding marshes served as the setting for Great Expectations (Rochester is the Cloisterham of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and several essays in The Uncommercial Traveller, including “Dullborough Town” and “Chatham Dockyard,” are also located there.
Journalism was one of Dickens’s founding activities: in 1845 he helped launch the liberal Daily News, published by Bradbury and Evans and run by former contributors including John Forster and George Hogarth, W. H. Wills, Mark Lemon, and Douglas Jerrold. Soon, Dickens briefly became its editor with the huge annual salary of £2,000, and, as an added bonus, his own father was placed in charge of the reporters. While working at David Copperfield, he conceived and implemented Household Words and, unlike his stints at Bentley’s Miscellany, Master Humphrey’s Clock, or the Daily News, he kept busy until his death with his own journals, Household Words changing its title in 1859 to All the Year Round. With the help of assistant editor W. H. Wills, Wilkie Collins, whom he met in 1851, and other young writers, the decades of the 1850s and 1860s were rich in journalistic events that Dickens relayed to a quality-conscious public, with sales at Christmas time climbing to 100,000 for Household Words and 300,000 for All the Year Round. His passion for journalism was passed on to his eldest son Charley who, after his father’s death, continued to edit and manage the magazine until 1888.
Toward the end of his life, Dickens proclaimed his high sense of vocation: “When I first engaged in literature in England, I calmly resolved within myself that, success or failure, literature would be my only profession I made a contract with myself that, through my person, literature would stand, in itself, for itself, and by itself.” While Dickens always maintained, and more often than not brilliantly, this image of a man devoted to the service of letters and readers, at times, John Drew notes, in his run-ins with publishers, the imperiousness of his temperament overrode his “calm resolve”: as evidenced by the last issue of Household Words founding All the Year Round, a contrario as eloquent as the solemn public declarations.
The last twelve years
On April 13, 1857, when she had just turned eighteen, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan was noticed by Dickens at the Haymarket theater. The impression is so strong that in December, he opens up about his trouble to his friend Mrs Watson.
The following year, he recruited her, her mother and one of her sisters to perform a play by Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep, at the new Free Trade Hall in Manchester, giving the leading roles to Mrs. Ternan and Maria, while Ellen played the secondary character of Lucy Crayford. These performances, stirring up the feeling born in 1857, will have many repercussions for Dickens. Captivated by Ellen, who was the same age as his daughter Katey, he never forgot her, entrusting her with some of his works and directing her career, housing her and her family in England as well as in France, where he often joined her in Condette near Boulogne. From 1860 onwards, it was observed, he regularly crossed the Channel and, between 1861 and 1863, was not occupied with any major novels nor gave many readings. The couple’s presence in France was confirmed in June 1865 during the Staplehurst railroad accident, as the train bringing them back from France in a first-class carriage at the head of the convoy derailed between Headcorn and Staplehurst on June 9, 1865.
Workers removed 16 metres of rail, but the train left earlier than they expected, with no warning flare. The first eight cars toppled into the Little Beult River below a low viaduct with no railings, and many passengers were trapped in the rubble. Dickens, who was small in stature, managed to climb out of the window, free his companions, ensured that Ellen and her mother were taken immediately to London, and then went to the aid of the injured.
Nelly was shot in the left arm, which would remain weakened. Dickens, fearing that their relationship would be discovered, insisted that the Ternans’ name be removed from the press accounts, and he refrained from testifying at the official inquiry to which he had been summoned. The accident resulted in ten deaths and forty injuries, fourteen of them serious. When The Common Friend was published in 1865, Dickens added an ironic afterword recounting the accident: the manuscript of the last episode had been left in his coat and, after three hours, he suddenly remembered it, climbed into the suspended carriage and managed to retrieve the pages.
Nelly became almost clandestine. Yet ambitious, lively, intelligent, very pleasant in society, intellectually active and cultured, her life has come to a virtual standstill. For Dickens, she became a permanent source of comfort and a good advisor, her stagecraft and public readings, for example, progressing greatly.
Peter Ackroyd wrote of Ellen Ternan that “she was strong-willed and occasionally domineering, highly intelligent and, for a woman whose only education was a childhood spent on the stage of the travelling theater, remarkably cultured. E. D. H. Johnson notes the change in Dickens’s work from 1858 onward, stating, for example, that “the name of the young woman certainly influenced the choice of the names of the heroines of the last three novels, Estella, Bella Wilfer, and Helena Landless,” with the evocative name of Lawless, Ellen’s middle name, all of which evoke the brilliance (hèlè) of the star (stella), beauty, and light. Their willfulness, he adds, represents a departure from the “ideal of gentle sanctity” embodied by Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson and Amit. Moreover, “his later works undoubtedly explore sexual passion with an intensity and acuity unprecedented in his work. Finally, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was inspired by a Ternan family incident when one of Nelly’s father’s many brothers went for a walk one day and never returned.
That Dickens loved Ellen passionately is established, but it was not until after Gladys Storey published Dickens and His Daughter in 1939 that the details became known: Kate confided to her that her father and the actress had a son, who died at four days old, a birth attested by the cryptic April 1857 entry about Slough in Dickens’s diary, “Arrival and Loss.” There may have been several pregnancies, and Nelly would have alluded to “the loss of a child.” Gladys Storey does not corroborate these statements, but, at her death in 1978, various documents were deposited in the Charles Dickens Museum, where, according to Claire Tomalin, they confirm the facts revealed. The couple lived in Slough, where Dickens passed himself off as “Mr. John Tringham of Slough” or “Mr. Turnan,” at Windsor Lodge, Peckham, again using assumed names, and in France near Hardelot Castle. Michael Slater notes that the novelist bought for Nelly a large house in Ampthill Square, St. Pancras, where she lived from 1859 to 1862, which Claire Tomalin also corroborates. During all these years, Ellen was “using her grey cells to cultivate herself,” as Kate Perugini confided to Gladys Storey. During their separations, their correspondence was channeled through W. H. Wills, a close friend of Dickens, journalist of Household Words and All the Year Round, for example during the American tour of 1867-1868.
It is not clear that Ellen Ternan would have readily accepted the intimacy of a man beyond the age of her father. Her daughter Gladys reports that she spoke highly of Dickens, but biographer Thomas Wright describes her as bitterly regretting her affair, “which began when she was young and penniless, reproaching herself and growing apart from him. According to E. D. H. Johnson, she had long denied herself. Ellen,” adds Thomas Wright, “if she gave in, seems to have done so without warmth and with a sorrowful sense of guilt. He relies on Canon William Benham of Margate: “I have it from her own lips,” he writes, “that she was repulsed by the very thought of this intimacy. At the time of this confession, Ellen, now Mrs. Robinson of Southsea, Hampshire, was retired to a small provincial town, a most respectable widow. When Georgina learned that Thomas Wright was collecting material, she was very concerned that certain details “of a private nature” not be published against her brother-in-law, to which she was told that “it would have been cruel indeed to reveal them so prematurely”; indeed, the biography did not appear until 1935.
Dickens’ passion for the stage and his popularity prompted him to undertake public readings of his works. He began by performing for small groups of friends at charity events, then tried his hand at larger audiences. From 1858 onwards, he was so successful that he began to profit from them and, for the rest of his life, these recitals were a major part of his activities. According to a witness of the time, “his reading is not only as good as a play, it is better than most of them, for his acting performance reaches the heights.” Between April 1858 and February 1859, he gave one hundred and eight performances, which earned him £1,025, almost half of his literary earnings, which did not exceed £3,000 per year. Beyond the financial aspect, however, the passion that inhabited him when he was in front of an audience was such that it became almost obsessive, that he entered as if in a trance and that the audience was transported with enthusiasm, Dickens, according to witnesses, holding it under his spell, exercising a powerful fascination. He travels throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, and the longer his tours last, the larger the audience becomes. His letters are filled with pride, and George Dolby, who became his agent, writes that “apart from the financial benefits, the pleasure he feels is beyond words”. Witnesses are unanimous in paying tribute to this mastery, to the talent of the reader, to the genius of declamation: hypnotism, charm, a keen sense of direction, such are the words used, and the gesture accompanies the word, the suspense is skilfully managed, the effects of the voice remain striking. Even Mark Twain, at first skeptical and irritated by “the very English emphasis of the character”, gave in to what he called “the splendid mechanics. I almost felt as if I could see the wheels and pulleys at work. Birmingham, Sunderland, Edinburgh, his bursts of happiness at so much glory follow one another: “I am really very successful”; “I have never contemplated an audience under such a spell”; “The triumph I received there surpasses anything I have ever known. The city was stormed and swept away,” etc. In Belfast, they stop him in the street, cover him with flowers, collect the petals he touched; the men cry, as much or even more than the women.
In the late 1860s, family and friends worried that Dickens was tiring on his tours, which, like everything else he did, were spent in a state of excitement. His mesmerizing rendering of Sikes’s murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist, in particular, left him panting with exhaustion, and his son Charley warned him, “I never heard anything more beautiful, but don’t do it again.” Added to this was the trauma of having to take the train, which, since the Staplehurst accident, had become increasingly painful for him. His personal physician, Dr. Francis Carr Beard, whose notes indicate alarming heart attacks, especially during the Oliver Twist scene, finally forbids him to give these recitals. Dickens ignored the ban and left for a new American tour in 1867, and another one in October 1868 on the English roads. He returned from this tour exhausted after seventy-four performances out of the one hundred planned. From then on, in the quiet of Gad’s Hill Place, often with Ellen Ternan, he devoted himself to his last novel and found some rest. As a good star, however, and against everyone’s advice, he included in his schedule twelve farewell recitals in London at the end of 1869 and the last ones from January to March 1870. Three months later, on June 9, 1870, he died and, strangely enough, five years to the day after the Staplehurst (en) railway disaster, which had left such a deep impression on him.
The ultimate Dickens
Dickens’ fourteenth novel, and the last to be completed, The Common Friend, appeared from May 1864 to November 1865. It presents a panoramic view of English society devoted to urban superficiality and destructive greed, of which the Thames, set, actress and above all symbol, carries the waste bodies that human vultures fight over. As for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has remained incomplete, it would be the culmination of the themes and motifs explored throughout the work. Some critics, such as Edmund Wilson, see his hero, Jasper, as a self-portrait, a divided man, both of the world and of the imagination, socially familiar but threateningly foreign. If this is the case, the missing character, Edwin, would likely have returned, this return symbolizing “resurrection and life,” like Carton’s sacrifice.
There is some doubt about the exact circumstances of Dickens’ death. The critics have not yet decided, but seem to lean towards John Forster’s version.
Georgina was at Gad’s Hill Place on June 8, 1870 when, after working in her cottage, Dickens joined her at 6:00 p.m. for dinner, his features defeated. She asked him if he felt ill: “Yes,” he replied, “very ill for the last hour. She wants to call a doctor, to which he replies No, and collapses. Georgina rushes over and says, “Come and lie down,” he whispers before losing consciousness. Georgina calls the local doctor, then Grandma, Katey and Charley, who join her. She may also send for Ellen Ternan. This is the story told by John Forster, who claims to have heard it from Georgina.
There is another, which gives him a quite different role: Dickens is not taken ill at home, but at Winsdor Lodge, Peckham, where Ellen Ternan lives. Ellen carries him dying, even dead, in a carriage to Gad’s Hill Place, 24 miles away, where he is pulled up to the table to simulate the scene Forster tells us about.
To support this version of events, the most important testimony, according to David Parker, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, is that of a Mr. J. C. Leeson, whose grandfather, the Reverend J. Chetwode Postans, was appointed pastor of the Linden Grove Congregational Church located across from Windsor Lodge in 1872. The church warden, who had been in office before him, mysteriously told him that “Dickens did not die at Gad’s Hill”, a statement whose significance only becomes clear when the true story of Dickens’ affair and the reason for his frequent visits to Peckham are known. The actor Felix Aylmer, then in contact with Mr. Leeson, collected the data, and soon after published his Dickens Incognito, published in 1959, but without referring to it and keeping Forster’s version. David Parker attributes this attitude not to the fact that Aylmer may have had doubts, but because he did not want to risk a scandal: on the one hand, he did not feel intellectually authorized to do so; on the other, he was afraid that it would harm his career, so “sacred” was everything related to Dickens. In any case, since the documents in his possession were given to the Charles Dickens Museum by his sister after his death in 1979, “the file on Peckham can, on my recommendation as curator,” says David Parker, “be analyzed by researchers.
If this hypothesis were to be verified, Georgina Hogarth would be an accomplice in a mystification: at Dickens’ death, listening only to her loyalty, she would have participated in the last act of a cover-up that had been going on since 1858, the date of the meeting with the young actress, i.e. a dozen years. However, Claire Tomalin was careful not to take sides, and David Parker, judging that she was not wrong, found many reasons to discredit Peckam’s hypothesis: poor reliability of the witnesses, practical impossibilities, the role of the servants, and above all the testimony of the doctor, Dr. Stephen Steele, who was impartial, he assured us, since he was not Dickens’s personal physician, and who confirmed that he had found Dickens unconscious on the floor at about 6:30 p.m.
In the end, the current state of research would make Georgina Hogarth’s version of events, as she delivered it to John Forster, true.
In concluding his article on Dickens’ public life, John Drew writes that, in a final irony, his last effort to dominate fate was thwarted. The immense popularity he so cherished would not allow his remains to be buried, as he wished, “free, unostentatious, and strictly private in the little cemetery adjoining the wall of Rochester Castle. With great pomp, the nation gave him a tomb in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, and the whole nation mourned.
In 1878, Henry Sotheran & Co. purchased Charles Dickens’ Gad’s Hill Place library (containing 1,020 books) and listed it for sale in their November 30 and December 31, 1878 catalog.
According to Hugh Cunningham, it is difficult to think of Dickens as a reformer, although that was his reputation during his lifetime and long after his death. Not that he did not attack the evils of society, but he did so without a coherent system, and his answers to the problems he raised were marked by his belief in the capacity of human beings to achieve goodness. In the light of his work, the transformation that Britain underwent in the 19th century can be measured by the passage from the stagecoach to the railroad, from the countryside to the city, from the rural world to the factory world. Three men who influenced him understood and analyzed this upheaval: Adam Smith, who advocated laissez-faire, Thomas Malthus, who recommended birth control, and Jeremy Bentham, an advocate of the greatest happiness for the greatest number through the intervention of political power. Instinctively, Dickens turned against the first two, especially in The Hard Times, where Thomas Gradgrind’s cadets bear their names derisively, and, in the same novel, actively stigmatized the excesses caused by the strict application of the theories of the third. In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens denounced the blind ferocity of the mob, which he had abhorred since the Chartist agitation in Wales in 1842. However, his distrust of this movement is theoretical: while Chartism presupposes the natural goodness of man, he is convinced that, if there is any goodness, it is the result of a fragile process of civilization. To preserve it, it is advisable that the authorities do not yield to any clemency towards the troublemakers. Hence his admiration for the police, private detectives, and law enforcement agencies.
A more literary than political challenge
That said, he attacked certain institutions that he considered to be social evils, such as the 1834 Poor Law, which amended the old Elizabethan law of assistance to the indigent. This new law, following on from the 1832 Act, put an end to home care for the destitute, which was considered too costly, and instituted their confinement in hospices. In Oliver Twist, little Oliver is entrusted to one of these institutions, and Dickens denounces its governance, in particular the authority invested in it by smug and ignorant little clerks, such as the beadle Mr. Bumble, who is responsible for the misfortune of the residents. Later, in Little Dorrit, he stigmatizes the penal institution which, among other things, mistreats a sickly old man, Nandy, a gentle flute player, who is kept with nineteen other people his age in the stench of a hole. Dickens’ action, writes Hugh Cunningham, remained literary; he did not actively campaign for change, which continued long after his death, until 1894.
Sensitive to the condition of workers, he visited factories in Lancashire as early as 1838, and what he saw there filled him with astonishment and disgust. He intended, he wrote, “to strike a blow”, which, commented Hugh Cunningham, “never came, even in The Hard Times”. The Edinburgh Review asked him for an article, which remained in limbo; four years later, he was content to send the Morning Chronicle an impassioned letter against the House of Lords over an amendment he disapproved of. In the mid-1850s, he published numerous articles in Household Words on industrial accidents, blaming the bosses and magistrates who “go out of their way to understand them. However, while he was very sensitive to child labor, none of the children he portrayed in his books worked in factories: only David Copperfield was employed to glue labels, a task that had no comparison with the slavery of the mines or the textile and metal factories; as for little Joe, forever sweeping the same crossroads in The House of Bitter Wind, he died more from boredom and hunger than from the hard work.
Dickens was little concerned with access to education for all and with the content of the curriculum, issues that agitated Great Britain during the decades of the 1830s and 1840s and that were never really resolved, the role of the State being less interesting to him than the ethics and pedagogy of the schools. In his work, bad teachers are legion, from the brutal Wackford Squeers, whom the young Nicholas Nickleby and Mr. M’Choakumchild, obsessed with “fact”, to the most titled and socially respected of them all, Bradley Headstone, who ravages young minds with the inadequacies of his character and ends up murdering to satisfy his ego. Yet he believes that education is the key to fighting crime. Placing much hope in the Ragged Schools, intended since 1818, on the initiative of the Portsmouth shoemaker John Pounds, to educate underprivileged children, he visited one in 1843, the Field Lane Ragged School, and was appalled by what he saw. He then undertook to work for a reform of these establishments, pleaded in vain with the government for an increase in funding, donated funds himself and wrote A Christmas Carol, initially a pamphlet on the condition of poor children, then a dramatic story that he considered more powerful. Indeed, his aim was to encourage the government to change the law, otherwise, he suggested, ignorance and need would condemn the well-to-do to become desiccated “Scrooge”, using their wealth and rank to despise the unfortunate rather than help them.
Gradually, however, he came to believe that the source of social ills was to be found in the housing and sanitary conditions reserved for poor families. In 1851, he declared to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association that the reform of what was beginning to be called “public health” must precede all other social remedies, that even education and religion could do nothing until cleanliness and hygiene were assured. He was all the more interested in the problem since one of his brothers-in-law had founded the “Association for the Health of Cities” and sent him detailed reports, for example on the dangers of the burial method. His Sketches of Boz and Oliver Twist (especially the description of Jacob’s Island in chapter 50) show that his concern for the problem was already long-standing, and in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit in 1849 he returns to “the lack of progress in sanitation in the housing of the poor.” One hundred and eighty children died that year of cholera in the Drouet Institution in Tooting, whose neglect Dickens immediately denounced in four articles for the Examiner ironically entitled “Paradise in Tooting.” He calls for a centralization of sanitary efforts, to the great displeasure of the conservatives whom he mocks as Mr. Podsnap. He took up the subject regularly in Household Words in 1854.
What to propose, since the state is lacking?
The ultimate culprit in all these ills, Dickens had long believed, was government, not so much the leaders who came and went, but the cumbersome administration that accompanied them. The preserve of the aristocracy, recruitment should, according to the Northcote and Trevelyan report of 1853, be by competitive examination, which Dickens approved. The slowness of change, however, fueled his hatred of bureaucracy, which was reinforced by the ineptitude displayed during the Crimean War of 1854: between April and August 1855, he violently attacked the incompetence of the authorities in his magazine, and went on a rampage in the chapter “Where the Science of Government is Discussed” in Little Dorrit, where the “Ministry of Circumlocutions” is described as “making a point of doing nothing. Dickens believed in philanthropy, invested in Urania Cottage (see Urania Cottage for “lost women”), the Great Ormond Street Sick Children’s Hospital, housing schemes for workers. However, he stigmatizes the philanthropic excesses of Mrs. Pardiggle who “puts on her benevolence like a straitjacket” and, devoting herself body and soul to her African causes, neglects her children, reduced to wandering, hungry, snotty and uncared for, in her house. Curiously, despite his attacks on the United States, it is in Boston that he finds institutions (public, unlike those in his country) that seem to him to help the poorest in an effective and dignified way. To do nothing, he thought, or to continue as it was, was to prepare the bed for a French-style revolution; capitalism must be allied with the working forces, since the gaps it created could be reduced by the good will of all. In the end, rather than political economy, it is humanity, decency and New Testament values that he is talking about.
Dickens and the French Revolution
That Charles Dickens was more of a reformer than a revolutionary is clear from his perception of the French Revolution: in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a work of fiction set in England as much as in the France of the Old Regime and the Revolution, he contributed to the foundation of English opinion regarding the French events of 1789 to 1793. Dickens achieves a synthesis between the thought of Edmund Burke and that of Thomas Carlyle: from the first, he retains only the praise of the English constitution by opposing the violence and misery of Paris to the calm and prosperity of London; from the second, main source of inspiration, he borrows the idea of the inexorability of a revolution considered as the vengeful action of a people against the corruption of the society of the Old Regime; In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens envisages, with the ultimate sacrifice of Sydney Carton in place of Charles Darnay, heir to the family that was at the origin of the Manettes’ misfortunes, the possibility of escape from the cycle of violence and punishment.
Compared to the creative power of Dickens, the constraints he had to submit to, the influences he received and the molds into which he slipped remain little. “His genius accepted them, assimilated them, and, without copying anything, he built an original universe, at once faithful to the world he knew and totally different, a universe in itself of poetic essence, unique in literary creation.”
The serial publication
Almost all his works were published at the rhythm of weekly or monthly appearances, a constraint he knew how to take advantage of, so much he mastered it and used it to hold his public in suspense and sometimes modulate the thread of the action, even the characters, according to its reactions. It was thanks to his regular serials, relayed beyond the subscriptions by the travelling libraries criss-crossing the country, that the magazines receiving his serials flourished, first those of independent publishers, then his own, including Household Words and All the Year Round. Each issue has an unspoken set of specifications: respect for the number of pages, the autonomy of each issue, with its beginning, its climax and its end, its dependence on the preceding chapters, the implicit announcement of the next one, the sparing of suspense, the establishment of uncertainty, the advancement of the plot without revealing its continuation, but with discreet hints. Paradoxically, this spread out publication requires a rigorous structuring of the whole, to inform in advance the illustrators whose plates take a long time to engrave and print and who must provide a cover illustration which, like the packaging, proposes from the start a global vision; it is also advisable to avoid repetitions and to relaunch the interest at regular intervals, hence this recurrence of programmed twists, in a dramatic way in the middle and in a secondary way in numbers 5 and 15. Thus, in Dombey et Fils, the death of little Paul, initially planned for the fourth issue, was postponed to the fifth. This mode of publication was appreciated by the public for its low price (made possible by targeted advertising), the conviviality of family or neighborhood reading, the speculation on future events, and the nostalgia for actions in the past. According to Robert Patten, “it stuck to the rhythm of life, inserted itself into the order of weeks or months, brought order and regularity in a world subjected to rapid changes”. Through this medium, he adds, Dickens democratized literature.
The Bildungsroman and other literary influences
Dickens’ novels are almost all in the Victorian version of the Bildungsroman, the novel of apprenticeship, also called the “novel of formation” or “novel of education”. A protagonist is indeed considered from childhood to maturity, with an initial frustration that alienates him from his family environment, engaged in a long and difficult maturation punctuated by repeated conflicts between his desire and the established order, finally realizing the adequacy between the one and the other that allows him to reintegrate society on a new basis. This passage from innocence to experience has variants, for example, and this is perhaps the most characteristic, that of the Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club where the hero, a man of experience in the eyes of society, adulated by his group of friends, considered a sage, a philosopher, a prophet, sets out on the road and, at the end of the road, realizes, especially thanks to his time in prison following a misunderstanding, that he knows nothing, that he has everything to learn, and that he gains, through his sacrifice, his self-denial, the experience of the heart, a sound knowledge of men and that wisdom with which he thought he was once equipped.
This genre comes from the picaresque model, whose prototype is Don Quixote, a pseudo-heroic hero with a valet full of common sense, whom Cervantes first entrusted with the journey. Dickens admired him, as well as Lesage and his Gil Blas de Santillane or his Diable boiteux, in which Asmodeus raises the roof of the houses to observe what happens there, metaphor of the approach of the narrator to the third person.
Beyond Cervantes and Lesage, Dickens was guided by the English models of the eighteenth century, discovered in his early youth and permanent objects of his veneration. Among them were Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, Fielding, and finally Goldsmilth, whose sentimental vein inspired him to advocate the ideal of the good man (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, etc.), as well as the naive eccentricity of characters such as Mr. Pickwick and Mr. Micawber, Mr. Jarndyce or Mr. Meagles. At the beginning of David Copperfield, the narrator lists them and adds: “They fed my imagination and my hope of something beyond this place and time I was the child Tom Jones for a week, I endured the life of Roderick Random for a month straight That was my only and constant comfort.” Another influence, Monika Fludernik notes, is the often-overlooked William Godwin, whose Caleb Williams certainly served as a model for social criticism and as a source, among others, for his prison metaphors, though it was primarily the debtor’s prison, known vicariously, that he described.
The satirical mode adopted by Dickens is also a product of the previous century. Like his models, Dickens knows how to spot human foibles, weaknesses and vanities; however, Monika Fludernik notes, his approach is less “vitriolic” than that of his predecessors: thus Casby, a swindler punished at the end of the story, remains a man whose sufferings are mentioned in the text, whereas Peregrine Pickle’s vicar, who looks very much like him, receives a merciless punishment that is pure farce. The same is true of the criticism of bureaucratic nonsense: while Fielding and Godwin attack the judges and juries, Dickens attacks the institution, the court of chancery, the ministry of circumlocutions. Also shared with the eighteenth century are his portraits of women who, according to Monika Fludenik, owe some traits, beyond personal encounters, to Fielding’s Sophia and Amelia, as well as to Smollett’s Emilia (Peregrine Pickle), although Victorian idealization à la Coventry Patmore, the influence of fairy tales and stage melodrama have helped shape their contours.
The work of the painter William Hogarth also inspired Dickens from the beginning, first of all, notes Malcolm Andrews, from a formal point of view. Indeed, his series of engravings, such as A Harlot’s Progress and Marriage à-la-mode, which were part of a coherent and structured whole, served as a model for the sequential narrative, for example in Meditations on Monmouth Street, where various highly visual vignettes scroll past the narrator Boz, a technique also employed in Oliver Twist, with its plethora of cramped, low-ceilinged, chiaroscuro rooms. Beyond this structural aspect, the scenes of daily life, as caricatured by Hogarth, are often found, often without much modification, in words simply transported to the next century.
Even in the three novels of initiation where the “I” intervenes (David Copperfield, partially The House of Bitter Wind, and Great Expectations), Dickens’ works also fall, as Paul Davis notes, into several subgenres practiced in his time.
If Dickens wanted to distance himself from what Thackeray called “the Newgate School of fiction,” he nevertheless tried to do so in the central episode of Oliver Twist and in some of his other novels, which feature the criminal and detective component found in several of his friends, Wilkie Collins and Ainsworth in particular. Great Expectations, for example, is full of prison brigs, convicts, swindlers, murderers, and crime bosses, and it features episodes of bloody violence. Throughout the novel, the enigma of the eccentric Miss Havisham, which only the conclusion unravels, and the suspense surrounding the convict Magwitch, whose return from the Australian deportation calls for the gallows, thus reconciling the hero with himself and sealing the end of his great hopes, since, with the incriminating property confiscated by the Crown, “there are no more hopes.
This aspect of Dickens’ work is inseparable from the hints, to which, writes Robert Mighall, he sacrificed from the beginning, of the Gothic tradition born in the 18th century with Walpole and his Castle of Otranto (1754), continued, among others, by Mrs Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolph (1794), and which Walter Scott exploited with The Bride of Lammermoor in 1819. Thus, in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the recurrence of ghosts, terrifying or simply grotesque incidents, especially in the interspersed stories, testifies to the author’s desire “to send shivers down the spine of his readers and at the same time make them writhe with laughter. Many other novels show the same characteristics, for example The Antique Shop, “the paradigm of the horror novel” according to Victor Sage, in which the dwarf Quilp, an evil gargoyle and “gothic villain par excellence”, is rampant, and in which little Nell is launched with a sick grandfather on inhospitable roads “haunted by persecution and leading straight to death”.
Again, it should be noted that Dickens departs from the Udolphian model by having him abandon his fortress home for the countryside. Similarly, with Barnaby Rudge, even though the Gothic surrounds Barnaby, the “ghost,” the “spectre,” the “wanderer of the earth,” he departs from it somewhat since this character, supposed to be central, rarely takes center stage. Moreover, in this novel, Dickens disapproves of anti-Catholic bigotry, here taken to the extremes of crime, whereas it is taken for granted in the Gothic world: his sympathy deliberately goes to the victims of the Protestant fury. In fact, explains Michael Hollington, Dickens attempted a new approach to the genre in his early writings: using its conventions to denounce the abuses found at its door. Sketched in Boz, continued in Oliver Twist, this trend culminates in The House of Bitter Wind, where the slowness of the law is rendered, more than described, by the labyrinthine metaphor of darkness and fog, where a society of ghosts and vampires wanders, collapsing in a Walpurgis Nacht dripping with spontaneous combustion. In 1860, with the Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, an old woman-bride frozen in time in her dilapidated manor ironically named “Satis House”, Dickens explores the theme of self-incarceration, a Gothic trait also deviated from, since the confinement is imposed by no one other than the victim. As Robert Mighall writes, Miss Havisham “gothicizes herself with application, deploying a consummate art of staging and effect”, and, in a “Frankensteinian posture”, she shapes her adopted daughter Estella into a monster of ingratitude. The height of irony is that the hero, Pip, falls forever in love with this icy doll, a love so constant, despite the contempt shown, that it also belongs to the sentimental vein of the previous century.
All of Dickens’ novels, even the darker ones such as A Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times, have comic aspects, both of situation and character. The reader is called upon to laugh without malice at the sovereign grandiloquence of Mr. Micawber, with contempt at the self-sabotaging official language of the Ministry of Circumcision, not without commiseration at the theatrical performance of Mr. Wopsle or the marriage of Wemmick, all scenes organically essential to the plot and the central theme. The most comical aspect of the play is the creation of two extraordinary characters in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Mr. Jingle and Sam Weller. Jingle is the champion of the zero degree of eloquence, his syntax reduced to a spartan pile of funny but fearsomely dramatic words, “telegraphic language tinkling like his name”: “tested, at the end, small box, soon, pile of bones, police report, false conclusions, draw the curtain”. As for Sam Weller, in addition to his comic sense of repartee, he practices the art of the proverb diverted, perverted or forged, hence this inexhaustible anthology of aphorisms commenting on each event in an incongruous but essential way. Thus, on the death of his father’s second wife, a cantankerous evangelist who died of too much drink, he finds the final word in all simplicity: “It’s over and there’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s a consolation, as they always say in Turkey when they’ve got the wrong head to cut off.
Keeping Great Expectations as an example, there is also the genre of the Silver Fork Novel, which flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, describing a glittering elegance and criticizing the frivolities of high society, a class for which Dickens had nothing but contempt, but which fascinated many of his readers. His novels can be conceived as “anti-novels with a silver spoon”, so fierce is the satire of the pretensions and morals of the rich and their sycophants. The very title, Les Grandes Espérances, turns out to be ironic, since in reality there are no “hopes”, as the convict’s property remains impure and, in any case, confiscated upon his return by the Crown.
To all these subordinate genres, Philip V. Allingham adds the category of the historical novel, with Dickens grounding his stories in a wealth of detail that eventually gives a sense of the events, personalities and way of life of the chosen era. Thus, Great Expectations begins just after the Napoleonic Wars, continues through the years 1830-1835, then jumps to the next decade from 1840 to 1845, and throughout these temporal passages, certain topical indications serve as landmarks: banknotes, mode of locomotion, location of gallows, rulers mentioned, etc.
All of Dickens’ themes are related to his own experience, even in novels that at first glance seem far removed from it, such as Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times. His themes can be broken down into three main areas that John O. Jordan calls the “fictions of childhood”, the “fictions of the city” and the “fictions of gender, family and domestic ideology”. Added to this is a recurring theme, particularly developed in Great Expectations, that which Thackeray called in his Book of Snobs, “giving importance to unimportant things”, or “admiring small things in a small way”.
It is a tradition that Dickens imported from Romantic poetry, especially that of Wordsworth, the role of the innocent child as a central figure in the novel. Once considered an incomplete and uninteresting adult, the child became by the end of the eighteenth century a qualitatively different human being requiring appropriate care for his or her well-being and preservation of innocence. Dickens’ “harsh experience of childhood,” as John Forster puts it, felt like the end of his innocence and the determining factor in his maturity, made him very receptive to the Wordsworthian conception of the child as close to the divine and predetermining of the adult, a feeling further exacerbated by the untimely death of Mary Scott Hogarth, his sister-in-law.
Several factors, writes Robert Newsom, “make this story more complex, however. The Victorians, especially the followers of the Low Church, also saw the child as particularly vulnerable to evil temptations, primarily disobedience, which leads to all sins. If Dickens was always opposed to the severity of religion, which he associated with the Old Testament, he nonetheless imagined certain little monsters of dishonesty or wickedness, The Artful Dodger, of the Fagin gang, Tom Scott, attached to the dwarf Quilp, or Tom Gradgrind, with a vertiginous selfishness. On the other hand, Robert Newsom adds, “Wordsworth-like child worshippers are rare in his work, and those that are are not very effective,” such as Nelly’s grandfather. As for loving mothers, they either die young, like David Copperfield’s, or they disappear: thus, Oliver Twist ends up in a hospice, while the narrator ironically speculates about the sweet women who may have surrounded him at birth.
In fact, the children in the early novels are victims not only of neglect, but also of a sadism that is sometimes quite audacious for the time: Quilp offers little Nell to be his “number 2,” that is, his wife when his “number 1” is dead, and he accompanies his declaration with loud kisses on her “pink parts,” as he calls them, so that the reader wonders “whether he wants to eat her or rape her”; and Wackford Squeers, like Mr. Creakle whips the little boys with a gleeful appetite. Another variant of the abused child, that of the puer senex: Nell is an adult before her time but out of necessity, while Paul Dombey, “little Paul”, is described from the cradle onwards by everyone as “old-fashioned”, which worries him, believing it to mean “skinny”, “easily tired”. Thrown into a mold of conformity, grown like a seed in a greenhouse, he dies without understanding that he is old at nine: there is the outline of a limited consciousness here, writes Robert Newsom, a technique Dickens deploys often enough, as with Joe the Sweeper, to intensify the pathos of the situation.
By the middle of his career, Dickens was presenting first-person narratives directly related to his childhood. 1848 was a period of mourning for him, and the personal vein had seized him, his Autobiographical Fragments sitting alongside David Copperfield. Moreover, this genre had become fashionable since the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 and the immense notoriety it soon brought to its author. No doubt Dickens did not intend to let himself be supplanted in public favor, especially since Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was also on the front page of the literary press. Robert Newsom sums up the situation as follows: “If Jane Eyre owes much to Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Esther Summerson and Pip owe him just as much. The consciousness of the child can then be read directly, although, as is the inherent problem of all autobiographical writing, its reconstitution a posteriori by an adult memory accentuates, through the effect of a magnifying glass and also of style, the emotional reactions, the anger, the anguish, the despair. There is a subtle narrative mystification here: the puffs of revival, whose flow remains artfully controlled, are transcribed as being reborn in the present, but without the adult completely fading away. At the beginning of Great Expectations, childlike perspective and adult retrospection are interwoven, as Pip recounts how he came to name himself and what idea he had of his parents from the letters carved on their graves. Robert Newsome writes that here Dickens presents a childhood “now removed from Wordsworth’s glorious divine clouds, bursting into a fallen world,” marked, as the hero says in chapter 32, by the “stain of prison and crime,” a childhood deprived of childhood, innocence having been denied.
The last avatar is the adult-children, men or women who refuse to grow up, for example Harold Skimpole, inspired by the writer Leigh Hunt, Flora Finching, Dora, the flower that David Copperfield took as his first wife. Dickens does not spare them if they combine irresponsibility with wickedness, but knows how to be indulgent towards those who show a benevolent streak: Mr. Pickwick, the Cheeryble brothers, Mr. Micawber, all irresistibly comic and whose “freshness, kindness, and ability to be pleased”, as it is said in chapter 2 of David Copperfield, ultimately prove useful, even indispensable to the community.
Before Dickens wrote about London, first in Boz’s Sketches and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the city had appeared in fiction only as an occasional setting for a domestic plot: with him, it became one of the protagonists of the work and one of the engines of its success. Throughout his life, Dickens drew on the experience he gained as a young reporter, a habit he continued throughout his life. He felt a joy of it to the point of exuberance, and even when he was abroad, London was never far from his thoughts. Thus, his stories take the reader on an endless tour of the capital, with its spires streaking the horizon, the dome of St. Paul’s towering above: order, chaos, the panoramic juxtaposed with the personal, two perspectives constantly telescoping, as in Martin Chuzzlewit’s Todgers episode. The sounds of the city resound in counterpoint, the “symphonic chorus of the city”, according to Murray Baunmgarten: the creaking of trains, the whistles of stations, the cries of newspaper sellers or peddlers, sometimes in an onomatopoeic rendering, as in Dombey and Son.
Like the mighty Thames that irrigates it, London is in fact traversed by a permanent movement, a flow of crowds but also mutations that make it, for its inhabitants, the characters, the narrator and the reader, difficult to apprehend, at times a market, a labyrinth, a prison, at times an agent of regeneration. Historians note the accuracy of this rendering: as renovation projects in the 1850s opened up new public gardens and squares, Wemmick’s daily journey from his miniature castle to the City of London and back is carried out amidst troupes of actors and strolling musicians who have left the back alleys to occupy these liberated spaces in a perpetual back-and-forth. In this dramaturgy, writes Murray Baumgarten, Dickens infuses the city, “magic lantern, ballad opera and melodrama of the nineteenth century,” with the vitality of a Hogarth, with snapshots in action, so many effects of reality as if sprung from a three-dimensional diorama.
Dickens was the demiurge of a capital in motion,” adds Philippe Lançon, “His imagination determines the capital to such an extent that painting, sculpture, the stage, and emerging photography all seem to illustrate his novels. They take London not as a setting, but as a living, intimate, multicellular entity. And Alain adds: “Wherever Dickens evokes a character, he founds for ever a cell of London that never ceases to multiply as we discover its inhabitants; the impression of nature is so strong that we cannot refuse these beings; we must follow them, which is better than forgiving them. The Dickensian atmosphere, which resembles no other, comes from this secretion of habitation by the inhabitant.
If Dickens was recognized during his lifetime as the prophet of the home, those he describes are generally neither harmonious nor happy: in his work, George Newlin counts 149 orphans, 82 fatherless children, 87 motherless. Only fifteen characters had or still have both parents, and half of these families, he wrote, “would be considered dysfunctional today. To explore the social, economic, and political tensions of his time, his creative energy thus went into depicting grotesque, fractured families.
Yet when he launched Household Words and wrote to Forster that his magazine would be imbued with “a Christmas philosophy, a vein of warm generosity, radiating joy in all that pertains to home and hearth,” he was repeating an already familiar antiphon: Since A Christmas Carol in 1843, which is relayed each December by a new dedicated tale, he embodies this spirit in the eyes of all, which commentators note, Margaret Oliphant for example, ironizing on the “immense spiritual power of the traditional turkey”, or J. W. T. Ley who called him “The Apostle of Christmas”. Thus, some of his fiction helped shape the domestic ideology of his time, with the family, until then the inheritance of a lineage, becoming a sanctuary deemed appropriate for each of its members. In this idealization of the home, the woman ensures the harmony of the private sphere: thus little Nell, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, little Dorrit and, after some hesitation, Bella Wilfer. Catherine Waters notes that two of these young women bear the sobriquet “petite” and that indeed, smallness prevails in this representation of the domestic ideal: the reassuring smallness of people (Mrs. Chirrup, Dot Peerybingle), to which corresponds the warm narrowness of places (the Peggotty’s boat, Wemmick’s miniature castle), while the large buildings and mansions, where public and private are mixed, only shelter alienated or heartless guests (Chesney Wold, Satis House, Mr. Dombey’s house).
In addition to these pure “angels of the home”, Dickens presents more ambiguous female characters, both confirming and criticizing the dominant domestic ideology: thus the aristocratic Lady Dedlock, whose icy appearance conforms to the trappings of her class, but whose intimacy gradually reveals her to be in the grip of muted passions. The omniscient narrator guards against intrusion, calling her only my Lady and, cautiously on the outside, lets the story reveal of itself a hidden transgression and its painful result, the loss of a child. The haughty lady, in the end, is only a socially integrated “lost woman”, while Rosa Dartle, forever wounded by Steerforth’s betrayal, refuses any compromise and fiercely denies her alleged feminine specificity. Moreover, after 1858, and many critics see the influence of Ellen Ternan, Dickens’s heroines are more willing, quicker to express their desires, not to mention minor characters appearing in short stories or plays, “coquettish and capricious women, interested, certainly, but also complete women, alive, authentic … and feminine.
In Hard Times, Dickens addresses the issue of divorce, woven into the narrative texture through the characters of Louisa Gradgrind and Stephen Blackpool. In addition to his own personal experience, he echoes the 1854 bill, A Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill, which is reported in two essays in Household Words. If all the marriages in Coketown were disastrous, the paradigm of failure was that of Blackpool, which could not initiate divorce proceedings because of the prohibitive price, the legal complications, and the moral ostracism.
Thus, through his repeated descriptions of orphans, spinster maids, monstrous mothers, and dislocated families, Dickens exposes the instability of the domestic ideal that he nevertheless seeks to affirm. Certainly,” writes Natalie McNight, “he relied on the stereotypes of his time, but he also reveals their tensions and contradictions, and his fiction transcends them by its imaginative richness.
Where does money come from in Dickens? It comes from work, explains Henri Suhamy, but it is only acceptable if it is the work of others. Miss Havisham earns her income from the rental of her property, pure money that is not tainted by hard work. Because she is rich, the old lady, despite her eccentricity, enjoys the general esteem and, although excluded from life, she is not excluded from society, the very image of a landed aristocracy that remains powerful even though frozen in the past. On the other hand, money from Magwitch is socially forbidden, because it comes from a convict, earned on a criminal land and by force of arms. What assets does one need to have in order to achieve “distinction”? A title, or failing that, family ties to the upper middle class: thus, Mrs. Pocket bases her constant aspiration on the fact that her grandfather was “almost” knighted, and Pip maintains the hope that Miss Havisham will end up adopting him, because adoption, as Estella testifies, behaving like a born lady, is perfectly acceptable. Money and education, regardless of any professional training, are more important but not sufficient. On this account, it is the odious Bentley Drummle who embodies the social ideal, which explains why Estella marries him without batting an eye.
But money is corrupting: its attraction prevails over everything, loyalty, gratitude, even conscience, and the idea of the gentleman, according to John Hillis-Miller, “goes bankrupt. This rejection, initiated by Dickens in Little Dorrit and confirmed in Great Expectations, is not necessarily shared by contemporaries: for Thackeray, the idea of the “gentleman” needs to be re-evaluated but remains an indispensable concept, and for Trollope, ethics can only be spontaneous “with those qualities defying analysis which the man and the lady of distinction display. Finally, wealth and distinction do not bring happiness, “a world dominated by the lure of money and social prejudice leads to the mutilation of the being, to family discord, to war between man and woman”.
“A London street described by Dickens is indeed like a London street, but is even more like a street in Dickens, for Dickens uses the real world to create his own world, to add a land to the geography of the imagination.” Thus Lord David Cecil sums up Dickensian realism, implying that there is no such thing as pure realism and that intention eventually fades before the energy of vision.
Such is the traditional point of view, stemming from Chesterton, who sees in Dickens’ work, besides his social and moral satire, or his interrogations on what is civilization, elements picked in the extraordinary and the fantastic. The marvelous arises from the darkness or the greyness, and in a grimacing way, the evil appearing everywhere, in the leprosy of the things as in the corruption of the hearts, and especially because people, places and objects take value of signs, of symbols, the characters moving like emblems and the landscapes surrounding themselves of a halo of meaning. Even, for example, in Great Expectations, when he describes the dark and twisted alleys like the smoke that stains the walls, explains Henri Suhamy, Dickens does not create ugliness: under his pen, the ugly becomes comical, the tohu-bohu teeming with life, and the flat swamp with its gallows and its graves, the river black as the Styx, the inaccessible sea, its carcasses and its wrecks, the labyrinthine city, all this represents, more than he evokes them, death, the desert of life, eternity, but also hope and faith in the future. Then, the world appears like another atlas where the movements of the stars, the waves, the lights, the night, the fog, the rain or the storm isolate the houses, lose the routes, track the beings, wait for them like the destiny. In this universe, men meet but do not unite, touching to repel, joining to fight; a universe in itself where beings and things find a place that is not the one that would be assigned to them in reality, with its own laws, without heredity for example, nor great influence of the environment, with erratic tides and probabilities flouting mathematics. Then, the strange becomes the normal and the fantastic simply the unusual: it is a poetic universe. Also, as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1925, “The extraordinary power of Dickens has a strange effect. It makes us creators, not just readers and spectators.
Contemporary critics say no less: according to Nathalie Jaëck, Dickens’ novels are deliberately duplicative, with, at the heart of this writing creating English realism, an intrinsic subversion, a desire to introduce, within the system of representation that it constructs, a check, a formal alternative: “Situated at the crucial moment when realism is confronted with its limits and modernism has not yet established itself as a system, the Dickensian text settles into this transitional space: it very methodically builds an effective realist literary machine, at the same time as it experiments with the formal means of seizing the beautiful work. “.
According to Patricia Ingham, “Dickens’ mastery of language, unique in its invention and density, makes him the James Joyce of the Victorian era. Deploying all possible linguistic resources, from the creation of vocables to the literary allusion, choice rarely without older literary models that he often develops beyond recognition.
This power is evident from the naming process, where the combination of sound and meaning already signifies the character, an attention to onomastic detail illustrated in the working notes. Thus, the name of Martin Chuzzlewit’s eponymous hero goes through eight stages to arrive at a combination of halfwit (“simple-minded”) and puzzle (“enigma”), i.e. a person in need of enlightenment. Similarly, Bella Wilfer combines beauty and willpower, while Carker comes from cark (“to pester relentlessly”) and the financier Merdle defines himself in Freudian terms from the start. Dickens also strings together pearls of names with minimal but significant variants, such as the clones Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle (“noodle”), Poodle (“poodle”), Quoodle, aligning themselves with the politician Dedlock, himself “lock” and “dead,” or the sequence of Mizzle, Chizzle, and Drizzle, not to mention Zizzle, the lawmen haunting the chancery court, all of whom generate confusion (mizzle) and brittle deceit (chisel). In contrast is the monosyllabic Joe, a small, barely human crossroads sweeper.
Once he has named, the narrator turns his attention to verbal idiosyncrasies: Barney, Sikes’s accomplice, speaks from the nose, “whether his words come from the heart or elsewhere” (the innocent inventor Doyce expresses himself “with the sweetness of his name and the agile suppleness of his thumb” (I, 10), but Flintwinch, that combination of crank and flint, “speaks with forceps, as if the words came out of his mouth in his own likeness, all crooked” (I, 15). Mr. Micawber speaks “with an unspeakable air of doing something distinguished” (11, X), while Mr. Dombey “looks as if he had swallowed a morsel too big for his gullet” (as for the brittle Podsnap, he addresses a stranger “as if he were administering some powder or potion to a little mute” (I, 11).
The linguistic thickening is continued by the contribution of a regional or class language, the two often being linked. Sam Weller identifies himself as a cockney (w becomes v, disappearance of the aspirated h, etc.), the Peggoty let themselves be heard as originating from East Anglia (bahd for bird “bird”, fust for first “first”), and in Nicholas Nickleby and The Hard Times, point out the particularities of the north (hoonger for hunger “hunger”, loove for love “love”). The spelling of these dialectal forms was not codified, so Dickens reproduced them in his own way, as Emily Brontë did in Wuthering Heights or his sister Charlotte, who corrected it for a more intelligible edition. Other lexical characteristics include the jargon of thieves: nab for “arrest” or conkey for “informer”, and coded phrases such as “Olivier is in town”, meaning “there is moonlight”, which makes the action risky. In addition to his own observation, Dickens draws on the Critical Pronouncing English Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language of 1791, and even some regional treatises: Tim Bobbin, John Collier’s A View of the Lancashire Dialect with Glossary (1846) for The Hard Times, or Edward Moor’s Suffolk Words and Phrases for The Peggoty (1823). In The Common Friend, Lizzie Hexam appears, of low extraction (her father is a grave robber) but virtuous, and destined by the plot to join the middle class: to dissociate her from the vulgarity of her cockney speech, Dickens proceeds like Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, first endowing her with all-purpose popular expressions like the like of that (I, 3), then, after she has received some instruction, granting her long sentences with abstract words (II, 11).
Freed from the constraints of regional or class speech, Dickens gives free rein to his linguistic fantasy. Martin Chuzzlewit provides two examples, with Mrs. Gamp, who creates a world and a language adapted to her imagination, and the novlanguage that the eponymous hero and his companion Mark Tapley encounter in America.
Mrs. Gamp, the sole possessor and speaker of an opaque idiolect, makes herself understood, as Mowbray Morris wrote in 1882, “by her marvelous phraseology, her bizarre illustrations, her incongruous turn of mind. It is a syntactic chaos fed by approximations, nater (for nature), chimley (for chimney), kep (for kept), to which are mixed neologisms, reconsize (for reconcile), proticipate (for participate), all the s’s becoming z’s and the phoneme parasitizing the rest, parapidge (for parapet), topdgy-turdgey (for toppsy-turvy). Each verbal emission, most of the time greedy or nasty, becomes, by the confidence and the authority shown, a speech, a declaration, an apostrophe, even a prophecy, which is further complicated by the dialogue staged with the fictitious Mrs Harris, who is supposed to be a gospel and who blesses her ventriloquist forever.
In order to satirize America upon his return in 1842, Dickens worked hard on the language, creating a real newspeak, a “novlanguage”: to the morphological or syntactic neologisms (draw’d, know’d, you was, didnt ought to) already used in his renderings of the Cockney language, he added the systematic omission of syllables (p’raps, gen’ral) and the hyphen underlining the tonal drift (ac-tive, Eu-rope). Moreover, the all-purpose verb fix comes to express any action, “treat a disease” or “open a bottle”, and guess or calculate replace think, etc. This reduction, reflecting conceptual impoverishment, is inflated by a grotesque rhetorical swelling through the use of badly assimilated Latin words, such as opinionate for opine or slantingdiscularly for indirectly, all arranged in snoring metaphors, a linguistic deviance expressing the deviance of a corrupt and proud nation.
Dickens’ language is also characterized by its intertextuality, which Valerie Garger declares “to be far more significant than mere embellishment,” with the most interwoven in his texts being the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare.
The Antique Shop can be read as a version of The Pilgrim’s Journey, which the heroine herself mentions in chapter 15, and the plot of Hard Times is structured around a verse from the Epistle to the Galatians: “Since they have sown the wind, they will reap the whirlwind,” with the major parts divided into “Sowing,” “Harvesting,” and “Reaping. The most complex reference to the New Testament is found in La Maison d’Âpre-Vent, where the admonition “Love thy neighbor” and its corollary “on pain of damnation” are subtly woven into the themes and form of the novel itself. Then references to Matthew, Romans, Corinthians flourish, with the parable of the sowing and harvest dominating the narrative in subtext. Finally, the last book, concerning the surroundings and interior of a cathedral, is naturally rich in religious connotations. In addition to reproducing the language of the dignitaries and the vocabulary specific to the building, the language draws from the Old and New Testaments, and extracts from the Book of Common Prayer certain quotations that are sometimes taken, as Peter Preston notes, to be biblical texts, a choice that is never arbitrary, however, as it corresponds to the themes: sin, repentance, punishment.
Sin is evoked from the scene in the opium den, with references to the “defiled mind. Under the vaults of the cathedral thunders the hymn “Where the wicked man”, followed in the Anglican liturgy by a verse from Psalm 51: “I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is constantly before me.” Cain and Abel are mentioned as early as the disappearance of Ewin Drood, first by Neville Landless who defends himself with words close to those of the Book of Genesis, 4:15: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain lest anyone who found him should kill him.” And when he meets Jasper who asks him “Where is my nephew?”, he replies “Why do you ask me that?”, a new echo of Genesis, 4, 9: “Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain retorts: “How shall I know? Am I my brother’s keeper? Numerous other allusions plague Neville, whose words and actions evoke biblical fratricide, for example when he leaves Cloisterham with the “curse on his name and reputation”. And Honeythunder proclaims, “Thou shalt not kill,” to which Mr. Crisparkle replies, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”; he, the junior canon, indeed carries the true message of Christ, his mission being to those who suffer, he preaches, taking up the “Litany” from the Book of Common Prayer: “May it please Thee to help, to aid, and to comfort all who are stricken by danger, need, and affliction.”
Equally prominent is Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and, to a lesser extent, Othello, although Dickens wrote and performed a musical farce called O’Tello in 1833. Unlike religious texts that mold and modulate the narrative, Shakespeare’s plays integrate with the language of both the characters and the narrator to create “verbal fireworks whose effectiveness depends on the reader’s ability to compare the original with the new context. Thus, Dickens creates powerful contrasting effects, the highlight being Mr. Wopsle’s parodic representation of Hamlet in Great Expectations, with cruelly detailed misfires: a queen with an enormous chest and overloaded with finery, a ghost with an otherworldly fit, a dark, stiff hero, and the incoercible hilarity of Pip and Herbert (chapter 31). There is no shortage of allusions to the text either, with all the great dramas being called upon for various characters, with the exception of Dombey and Son, where Dickens concentrates on Antony and Cleopatra for the sole purpose of characterizing Mrs. Skewton, a shriveled septuagenarian who believes herself to be the new Cleopatra. Unbeknownst to her, she becomes the target of Shakespearean mockery from the characters, Dombey and Bagstock especially, and also from the narrator, harassment through titles, repartees, digressions, until the final chapter (41) where she lies, in agony, stuffed, made up, patched up, and suddenly gets up “like a Cleopatra in skeleton” then dies convinced of her infinite beauty, “devastating mockery, one of the cruelest Dickensian satires”, comments Patricia Ingham.
The tragedy of Macbeth, the darkest, the most murderous, is very present in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, whose first allusion is to that “quiet clerical bird, the rook, which, with great strokes of its wing, returns at nightfall”, an oblique reference to Macbeth, III, 2 (v. 40, 50-51), “The light thickens and the crow goes with great strokes of its wing towards the woods of the rooks”, a sentence pronounced just before the murder scene. The same technique is used on the eve of Edwin’s disappearance, when Dickens causes a strong wind to blow up the chimneys, as on the night of Duncan’s murder: “The night was restless. Where we lay
Beyond the interpretations of contemporary critics that Philip Allingham lists, there remain constants, with the main axis being the ironic posture whose principle (according to the etymology “eirôneia”) is to question the crude reality under the masks. A whole arsenal is at the service of the ironist, and Dickens does not fail to use it, or rather to lend it to his narrator, even if it means directing it at him. Here the process differs: towards the characters, irony is weighted with satire or sentimentality, depending on their category; towards the hero-narrator of the two first-person novels, it is both indulgent and lucid, since, as the main agent of the satire, he is also, permanently but sympathetically, its object. Towards the institutions, on the other hand, it remains uncompromising.
In the journalistic manner of his eighteenth-century predecessors, Dickens addresses the reader directly, but it remains to be seen who really has the floor in his novels. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club begins as a collection of scattered documents that the narrator Boz is responsible for editing. Very quickly, this role fades away and a narrator takes over with his absolute omniscience, but he prefers to attend the show, eyes and ears wide open, as if on a stage: he then describes the appearance, the gestures, and above all reports what is said, with the reader at his side. In La Maison d’Âpre-Vent, a narrator who is out of step with Dickens stands out, and above all a narrator, Esther Summerson, who speaks for him and presents the facts from a particular angle. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Pecksniff is constantly questioned by the outside observer as a preamble to Jonas’ own questions about the trust he should place in him. In David Copperfield, the narrator undertakes to tell and interpret past events, a necessarily partial and biased recreation, since, a priori, he is the only view and the only voice. Talkative and pedagogical, he does not let the facts speak for themselves, but asserts himself as master of the narrative game. Gareth Cordery writes that “David Copperfield is the quintessential novel of memory”, and as such, according to Angus Wilson, the equal of In Search of Lost Time: the past becomes present, the living replaces the lived, the historical present sealing the collapse of the original experience and the re-creation of a here and now occupying the consciousness, a whiff of reliving sometimes more vivid than reality. These are “sacred moments,” writes Gareth Cordery, where “the music of time” sings; “secret prose,” adds Graham Greene, “the feeling of a mind speaking to itself with no one around to listen.”
Dickens’ novels are prosceniums and scenes that, according to Philip V. Allingham, “teem with action and resound with voices of all classes and conditions. Often, as in Martin Chuzzlewit, this theatrical vein is the stuff of farce, with certain characters reacting according to a compulsive pattern, such as the letters Mr. Nadget mails himself every day and burns upon receipt. Sometimes this comedy becomes macabre; thus, Mrs. Gamp’s husband sells his wooden leg for a box of matches, which, handled with virtuosity, surpasses the one granted by nature, the object coming to life as the individual becomes chosified. John Bowen insists on these fantastic elements, which, according to him, are inseparable from the comic aspect. Thus, Pecksniff with the “wild strangeness”, formidable machine to give the change which deploys on any occasion the same hypocritical energy, self-fed, it seems. This force, Chesterton thinks, denotes “a predominance of harsh and hostile humor over hilarity and sympathy. Yet, he adds, Dickens is always at his best when he laughs at those he most admires, like that “bewildered angel” Mr. Pickwick, passive virtue made man, or Sam Weller, a paragon of active virtue. His madmen or eccentrics are likeable, even Barnaby Rudge, the poor raven hero. In Martin Chuzzlewit, on the contrary, they are abominable people, with a gigantic sense of humor, certainly, but of the kind “that one would not like to leave for a minute alone by the fire, so much .
Characterization is always a tour de force in which a panoply of recurring procedures is deployed: division between the good and the bad, with some moving from one state to the other; dichotomy between personalities that are forever fixed and those that evolve; reification with polarization on a mania or subtle metamorphosis from innocence to maturity, etc. Once the category has been defined, Dickens proceeds through the portrait: a comical and in itself descriptive name, the visual impact of a revealing physique, a bloated attitude repeated over and over again, an immutable tic. The good characters benefit from the same treatment, but a discreet sentimentality replaces the satirical ferocity, with an indulgence that is immediately acquired, bordering on Victorian pathos, since humor rather than wit prevails, complicity rather than devastating line.
Thus, the death of little Nell, in the verdant English countryside, her weakness ended by an environment that was supposed to be consoling, has a pathos that moved even the former editor of the Edinburgh Review, who, however, stigmatized Wordsworth for “his propensity for degrading pathos”. Sylvère Monod points out that this emotion “can be explained in large part by the fact that the death of a young person revives Mary Hogarth’s loss and also by the fact that Wordsworth feels an attachment to the children of his imagination comparable to paternal love. As such, he adds, the “emotional climax” deserves “respect”: “Dickens is to be thanked for tempering the heartbreak of death with the sweetness of a certain poetry”, as part of the scene is written in blank verse. Edgar Poe finds virtues in this pathos, whose “delicacy” he admires, in that it is based on a form of idealism, and which he likens to Undine (1811) by Friedrich de La Motte Fouque (1777-1843), the trouvère of chivalry, living “in the radiance of purity and nobility of soul.
But when it comes to castigating the system, the irony becomes devastating, especially since the institutions are not described in a malignant way, but shown in the very action of their ugliness and inefficiency. In this respect, the ministry of circumlocutions is exemplary, whose verbal waste, by developing what does not call for any development and deploying eloquence on nothing, makes a simple name receive infinite extensions and the useless gibberish, tortuous and labyrinthine, erects bars worse than the Marshalsea. The language ends up suffocating, reduced to deictics (“here”, “there”, “now”, “then”, “this”, “it”, “his” or “hers”), a “lost” language, inaccessible to the common people and thus a formidable weapon of alienation.
There is also a lyricism in Dickens’ novels, especially when he describes the countryside as opposed to the city.
In Martin Chuzzlewit, once the glorious ancestry of the Chuzzlewit family has been humorously exposed, the novel opens with a rural scene: a Wiltshire village, not far from the “good old town of Salisbury”, countryside dripping with the still-dark rays of the autumn sun, all conventional ingredients: fields, upturned earth, hedges, a stream, branches, chirps. Verbs, nouns and adjectives seem to come from the poetic language of the 18th century (poetic diction), that of James Thomson (1700-1748) in The Seasons (1726-1730), for example. There as here, automatisms, obligatory vocabulary and sequences often rhyme in hill, rill, fill, or vale, dale, gale, or fly, sky, ply and may, gay, pray. Dickens, it is true, seeks a contrasting effect for the arrival of Pecksniff immediately grounded by a gust. Suddenly, nature is stripped of its finery, the world is deregulated, harmony is broken, an “incontinent” fury takes possession of all things, and the “poetic diction” is no longer laughing or healthy but is chaotic and crazy.
Lyrical expressions of feeling remain, for example, in The Great Expectations, Pip’s inexplicable love for Estella; and sometimes rises a song in sequences of rhythmic prose cadenced in iambic patterns.
Like psalmodies, these passages broaden the vision and turn the characters into epic heroes. Thus, the storm in chapter 39 of Great Expectations, which repeats the prosodic pattern of the beginning of The House of Bitter Wind, a dissonance announcing a tear: “stormy and wet, stormy and wet, and mud, mud, mud, thick in all the streets. The invasion by the elements and the verbal accumulation mark the irruption of the convict Magwitch, the forgotten stranger who, disrupting cosmos and lives, seizes a blow of fate. This is followed by a narrative with an epic breath reminiscent of the beginning of the Aeneid “Arma virumque cano”: “I’m not going to go to any lengths to tell you my life, like a song or a history book”, a preterition belied by the repetitions, the ternary rhythm, the name “Compeyson” taken up in a creaking cell by sentence, then by paragraph, then occupying the rest of the speech on its own
This poetry, far from moving away from it, arises from the very naturalism of its author: Mikel Dufrenne notices that “there is world only for who discovers and cuts in the real a meaning”, what corroborates Henri Bergson for whom “the realism is in the work when the idealism is in the soul, and it is in strength of ideality only that one takes again contact with the reality”.
In short, the image of Dickens’ world is that of his personality: of reality, he retains only what moves him, his realism remaining at the service of his humanity. The poetry of his universe is that of his self which is projected in the things and the beings, and that they reflect; and the enchantment is born because the author has appointment with his being, the exaggeration even taking value of revelation.
For a complete list of Charles Dickens’s works and for a list of his collaborations, please refer to the palette at the bottom of each article about him or to the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. Only those works marked with an asterisk have been expressly authorized for translation by Charles Dickens.
For a complete list of so-called “short” works written by Dickens, see “A Comprehensive List of Dickens’s Short Fiction, 1833-1868” (accessed 23 January 2013).
Other works: criticism, poetry, theater
(Some of these works were written in collaboration, particularly with Wilkie Collins and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Gaskell.)
There are countless adaptations of Dickens’s character and work that have been the subject of scholarly works. Philip Allingham devoted his doctoral thesis to them in 1988; his exploration of the subject, from which the information mentioned below is essentially drawn, can be consulted online at the link cited in reference.
Among the most notable productions are four adaptations of A Christmas Carol:
Oliver Twist inspired in particular :
Nicholas Nickleby is adapted in Nicholas Nickleby, a British-American film directed by Douglas McGrath, starring Charlie Hunnam, Romola Garai and Christopher Plummer, in 2002.
As for David Copperfield, it was adapted in David Copperfield, an American film directed by George Cukor, with W. C. Fields and Lionel Barrymore, in 1935; then in David Copperfield, a British television film directed by Simon Curtis, with Daniel Radcliffe, Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith, in 1999.
Little Dorrit was brought to the screen in Little Dorrit, a British film directed by Christine Edzard, with Derek Jacobi, in 1988.
Great Expectations has, among other things, notably led to Great Expectations, a British film directed by David Lean, with John Mills and Alec Guiness, in 1946; and Great Expectations, an American film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, with Robert De Niro and Anne Bancroft, in 1998. In 2011, the BBC produced a three-part miniseries, scripted by Sarah Phelps and directed by Brian Kirk, with Ray Winstone, Gillian Anderson and Douglas Booth. Mike Newell directed a new film version in 2012, simply entitled Great Expectations with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter.
In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Dickens is a secondary character appearing in 19th century London.
The mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
The Mystery of Edwin Drood has, due to the fact that the novel is unfinished, received a privileged treatment as, on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 11 and 12, 2012, BBC2 broadcast an unedited and completed two-part version of the story. The original script is by Gwyneth Hughes, author of the Golden Globe-nominated British series Five Days. The writer wished to keep the ending secret. The second episode had a few surprises in store: Jasper (Matthew Rhys) is working hard to frame Neville, and although there is no corpse and no mention of the murder other than Jasper’s flashback fantasies, the whole town is convinced that Drood was indeed murdered. But the young man calmly reappears some ten minutes before the end and explains that he has made a brief excursion to Egypt: thus, Jasper did not kill and everything was therefore only a dream and a fantasy… And yet, Jasper did kill, not Edwin, but his father, old Drood; and a skein is untangled that one would have thought less complicated: In reality, Drood’s father is also Jasper’s… and Neville’s, so that Jasper and Edwin are not uncle and nephew, but brothers, and Neville is also added to the siblings. Against the grain of history, it seems, since he spent his last days plotting against it, the Drood family celebrates in the final scene the memory of Uncle
Dickens as a character in a novel
Charles Dickens has become the protagonist of a novel, Drood by Dan Simmons, published in France in 2011. In a column in Le Monde des livres, Hubert Prolongeau explores the American author’s fascination with Dickens’ unfinished novel and explains that instead of solving the unsolvable mystery of its ending, he preferred to look for the key in its genesis. Starting with the 1855 train accident at Staplehurst, he imagined that the writer encountered a strange character, with his nose and fingers cut off, named Drood. “Who is this Drood, who will obsess him to the point that he will devote all his energy to trying to find him, gambling in this quest both his health and his salvation?” There is more, however, by making Wilkie Collins his narrator, Simmons also probes his own mystery: that “this little master of the Victorian novel, the real hero of the book due to chance? By portraying him as both admiring and jealous of Dickens, his brilliant colleague, caught between envy and friendship, Salieri of this Mozart of words, Simmons undoubtedly reveals some of his doubts about literary creation. We find in Drood his need to permanently associate with his writings those of the great masters of the past, paying them homage and affirming the necessity of a filiation.
Charles Dickens also plays a prominent role in Terry Pratchett’s 2012 UK novel Dodger.
In French literature, Jean-Pierre Ohl, in his gothic novel Le Chemin du Diable, makes Charles Dickens appear as a child and describes in detail life in Marshalsea prison.
Like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of annual publications. Each specialized work offers a bibliography in which certain titles are listed, most of which were used in the preparation of this article.
During Charles Dickens’ lifetime, many of his works were translated into French with his approval and often with a preface written by him. After his death, translations followed one another until the end of the 19th century. Sylvère Monod has drawn up a list of the various contributors, in particular Paul Lorain, to whom the Hachette publishing house, responsible for these publications, sometimes attributed translations made by others. His analysis concludes with a rather negative assessment: “inaccuracies, intellectual and moral fog, lack of principles and reference points”. The miracle, he adds, is that, in such conditions, “estimable translations and Dickens could conquer through them a French public”.
The editions La Pléiade, mostly under the direction of Sylvère Monod, have published new translations of Dickens’ works. The catalog includes eighteen titles:
Éditions, coll. ” The Nineteenth Century Series “, 2008, 228 p. (ISBN 978-0-7546-6180-1)
In Great Britain and in the English-speaking world
The “Society for Victorian and Edwardian Studies” was founded in France in May 1976 at a congress of the “Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur” (SAES, the parent society). As its name indicates, it specializes in the study of the 19th century, its writers and the various aspects of British civilization during this period. As such, Charles Dickens is one of its areas of interest.
“Center d’études et de recherches victoriennes et édouardiennes, Montpellier, Université Paul Valéry, Presses universitaires de Montpellier III, 2006.
- Charles Dickens
- Charles Dickens
- Charles, d’après son grand-père paternel, John, d’après son père et Huffam, d’après son parrain.
- Aujourd’hui 396 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth, et le Musée de la naissance de Dickens.
- Chatham et Rochester sont des voisines immédiates, si proches, écrit Michael Allen, qu’il est difficile de savoir où finit l’une et commence l’autre.
- Stone, Harry. Dickens’s Working Notes for His Novels, Chicago, 1987
- Colledge, Gary (2012), God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. Baker Books. ISBN: 9781587433207
- Stephen Skelton, Reclaiming ‘A Christmas Carol’. CBN
- a b Forster 2006, p. 13.
- «Cartas revelam que Charles Dickens planeou internar a esposa (sã) num manicómio»
- The Guardian:The best British novel of all times – have international critics found it?, aufgerufen am 2. Januar 2016
- Stefan Meetschen: Ein Denkmal wollte er nicht. Zum 200. Geburtstag von Charles Dickens. In: Die Tagespost, Würzburg, 4. Februar 2012, Nr. 15, S. 10.
- Johann N. Schmidt: Charles Dickens. 5. Auflage. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt 1996, ISBN 3-499-50262-3.
- Wishing for modernity: temporality and desire in Gould’s Book of Fish.(Critical Essay)
- Popular tourist attraction closes as staff ‘told of redundancies via social media’. kentnews.co.uk, 12. Oktober 2016, archiviert vom Original am 9. August 2017; abgerufen am 8. Juni 2017 (englisch).