Initial On the 20th of January, 1890, the Pall Mall Gazette lamented that Wilkie Collins, who died on September 23rd in the previous autumn, had not written a biography of his friend, mentor, and collaborator, Charles Dickens. His very close relations with Dickens gave him opportunities that

came to no other man, and he could have told the story well. This cannot be doubted if a look is taken at the pencil and pen memoranda that are to be found in his copy of Forster's "Life"--the three-volume edition of 1872, which will be sold on Monday (3).

The marginal notes reveal not only Collins's feelings about Dickens's works and life, but also about the shortcomings of Forster's biography itself. Forster, asserts Collins, is too inclined to conventional morality ("wretched English claptrap") and to eulogize Dickens. In criticizing Forster's praising his dead friend's "unbroken continuity of kindly impulse," Collins seems to imply that there was a dimension of Dickens's life that Forster was reluctant to discuss. The best Dickens biography, then, in Collins's terms would be the one that best conveys that sense of the dual nature of Dickens, whose life in some respects is a more extraordinary bildungsroman (containing more plot secrets) than any of those which sprang from his pen. Collins seems to have been demanding from a Dickens biography a critical honesty and a strength of literary judgment that Forster's (even though, until the appearance of Edgar Johnson's Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph in 1952, it remained the standard work on Dickens' life) sometimes lacks.

Although many biographers have attempted Dickens since Collins pencilled in his criticisms of Forster, two recent scalers of that English literary edifice are particularly noteworthy: American Dickens scholar Fred Kaplan, and British novelist Peter Ackroyd. Against these moderns who have been influenced alike by Freud, television, and The National Enquirer, one employs the standards set by Dickens' friend, agent, and confidant, John Forster. Forster's biography is an epic in twelve books, an illustrated history (the first volume has thirteen illustrations, the second sixteen), a eulogy (it closes with a picture of Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner and the inscription on Dickens' grave), and an Horatio Alger story (its last word being in the appendixed will "�93,000" (II: 301). Forster was not merely the friend of the great man; he was a highly experienced journalist by the time he began to write the biography, and his experience as a writer as well as his breadth of reading shows. For example, Forster compares CD's childhood first to Sir Walter Scott's, then to David Copperfield's in "Earliest Years." The work is full of literary references, including the books CD read as a child. In the second chapter, "Hard Experiences in Boyhood. 1822-1824," Forster relates CD's experience in the blacking warehouse 'somewhere near the Strand' to David Copperfield's. He was, in fact, the first to mention the connection, which he stumbled upon quite by accident in conversation with Dickens "in the March or April of 1847" (I: 15). From the third chapter, "School Days and Start in Life," Forster proceeds to the period 1831-35, when Dickens began his career as a writer at the age of nineteen, becoming a short-hand reporter covering parliamentary debates for the True Sun.

The second great biography of Charles Dickens is that of American scholar and novelist Edgar Johnson, published in two volumes in 1952, then revised and abridged in 1977. Whereas Forster was content to anecdotalize and quote his friend, Johnson narrates with considerable sympathy Dickens' life as though it were a novel. Like Forster in the two-volume edition, Edgar Johnson in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952) sees the year 1846 as the natural division between the earlier and later stages of the author's career and life. The two parts of the later biography, taken together, total 1158 pages of text, plus eight pages of genealogical charts, fifty pages of notes, a 16-page bibliography, and an extensive (80-page) index. Johnson's thoroughness is undermined only slightly by the fact that one must wade through 16 pages of illustrations at the start of the second volume before one encounters "Part Seven: At Grips with Himself, 1846-1853."

Johnson's point of attack is novel, for he begins not with Dickens' birth but with the rambling, old Georgian mansion still called Gad's Hill Place. This is both Dickens's destination as a mature Victorian pater familias and a symbol of his artistic and financial success. Halting at page 10, towards the end of Dickens' second year on earth, one is brought to a halt by 16 pages of illustrations, cramped three to a five by seven and a half-inch page. Then the narrative continues with Dickens' childhood in Rochester ("The Happy Time"), followed by the contrasting recounting of his time at Warren's Blacking, Hungerford Stairs, in "The Challenge of Despair," and assessing the impact which that five-month period (coinciding with the time that his father spent in the Marshalsea for debt) had upon his childish soul. Dickens as office boy, as reporter, a youth in love with the banker's daughter, and finally as writer, begins in the fourth chapter, "Ambition's Ladder." From birth to age fifteen has taken us just 46 pages.

A touchstone to both the biographer's and biography's biases is the handling of Dickens' first American visit (1841-442). Forster devotes an entire 'book' (seven chapters) to this topic, quoting extensively from the letters that Dickens directed to him (and later borrowed back in order to write American Notes). Dickens' stand on the copyright question Forster presents through quoting a number of letters, especially that of 24 February, in which CD comments upon how Americans are reacting to his oft-publically-stated position and reminders of the melancholy fate of Scott, whose life would have been both happier and longer had he been able to enjoy royalties from sales of his works in the United States. Johnson, too, feels that the first American tour marks an important stage in Dickens' life: he devotes all of the fifth 'part' (five chapters totalling 89 pages) to the subject, his titles signalling the novelist's gradual disillusionment with the great experiment in democracy and a classless society: "The American Dream," "Conquest With Undertones," "'Not the Republic of My Imagination'," "Return Journey," and "Home Again: Valedictory on America."

Whereas Forster is reluctant to express his own feelings about the copyright question--still very much a subject for acrimonious trans-Atlantic debate in the 1870s--Johnson explores the issue from both sides, stating that in the States "native no less than foreign writers were injured by the lack of an international copyright agreement" (367), so that although they might read European authors, as it were, 'for free', Americans by their parsimony would impede the growth of an indigenous literature. One of those telling details for which one appreciates Johnson's biography is his including the song which American comedian Joe Field sang at the banquet held in Dickens's honour on the evening of February 1, 1842, in Boston, "The Wery Last Obserwations of Weller, Senior":

"Remember vot I says, Boz--
You're going to cross the sea;
A blessed vay avay, Boz,
To vild Amerikey;
A blessed set of savages,
As books of travels tells;
No guv'ner's eye to vatch, Boz,
Nor even Samivel's.

. . . . .

"Just think of all of yours, Boz,
Devoured by them already;
Avoid their greedy lures, Boz,
Their appetites is steady;
For years they've been a feastin', Boz,
Nor paid for their repast;
And von't they make a blessed feast
Ven they catches you at last!" (377)

The third and fourth biographies, that by Kaplan (1988) and that by Ackroyd (1990), are as different as the first and second already discussed. Kaplan's is modest, leisurely, predictable in style but interesting in content: it neither shocks nor tranquilizes. Ackroyd's, on the other hand, is a stylistic tour-de-force, with 30 pages of glossy illustrations (mostly photographs of paintings of Dickens, his houses, his manuscripts, pages of published texts, and wrappers of serial instalments), 1083 pages of text, an additional 58 pages of "Notes on Text and Sources," a bibliography 90 pages in length, and a 40-page index. These features for 20 one might well expect, although the package certainly strikes one as good value; what one does not expect, and what sets Ackroyd's apart from all previous Dickens biographies is a series of short 'fantasy' chapters dispersed throughout the text. Perhaps it is these, perhaps it is Ackroyd's reputation as a writer, and perhaps it is aggressive media advertising that has made this biography a best seller (I suspect the last of these propositions is nearest the mark). As Clifton Fadiman glowingly remarks in his "Report" for the April 1991 BookNews (the official organ of the Book of the Month Club), through straight narration and these bizarre critical 'interludes" Ackroyd is attempting to merge "exhaustive scholarship with the imaginative sympathy of a novelist" (2) in his exploration of the dark side of Dickens. John Carey in his Sunday Times review of Ackroyd's book speculates that it was

a wish to pin down this chameleon that prompted Ackroyd to include several fanciful inter-chapters where a Dickens figure converses with his own characters, or with Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, and others. The trouble is that the imagined Dickens seems so much thinner than the biographical one (8: 1).

Not having had the benefit of reading Carey's review before I tackled the tome, I was left momentarily without firm footing in the text as I had experienced it up to that point, when I encountered the first of the these 'inter- chapters', in which the biographer has Dickens visit Maggie and Little Dorrit at the Marshalsea, has him confront the child of his imagination who reflects in her situation his own deprived childhood. Having only just adjusted to the playfulness of Post-Modernism in architecture, I confess myself nonplused when encountering it between chapters progressing chronologically in a sober biography. However, having come to understand both the style and intention of the first inter-chapter, I was prepared for the scene in which the biographer himself attempts to engage "Charles Dickens at the time of Pickwick, and of Oliver Twist, and of Nicholas Nickleby" (306)--the lack of italics here is significant--in conversation as the young author hurries down a London thoroughfare in search of raw material for his art.

A young woman came running out from the dilapidated shop . . . ; Dickens stepped aside and let her pass, but looked at her so sharply that she felt the brightness of his glance upon her. She looked up at him as she ran off. "Did you see that face? I have never seen anything like it before! Truly, never!" But his questioner had seen only the startled appearance of a young woman caught by Dickens, as it were, while in pursuit of her own life. "What a fate she will have!" He murmured this with some satisfaction (307).

Aside from such critical playfulness, Ackroyd's strength lies partly in the wealth of detail he offers. For example, whereas Kaplan notes only Dickens's support of the 1836 Copyright Bill in his index, Ackroyd provides five entries under "copyright." Ackroyd has read widely enough and researched thoroughly enough that he can, for example, be fair-minded in his assessment of Dickens' position on copyright, taking into account both how important "monetary fair play" (351) was to the British author and how the Americans' "economic depression [should be viewed] as a hindrance to the export of American funds" that the sending of royalties abroad would have entailed. Kaplan reveals his national biases when he argues that Dickens' sense of personal, moral injury prevented him from attaining "a temperate and larger perspective" which would give him a "sense of the economic reality or of American irritability on such matters" (128). Kaplan offers as an antidote to Dickens's fulminations the Americans' economic justification for piracy: "undercapitalized nations, without public libraries, needed inexpensive access to ideas and entertainment that they could not generate themselves or afford to purchase at high rates" (127).

Another example of Ackroyd's detail is his interest in the breakup of Dickens's marriage and his relationship with Ellen Lawless Ternan. Only in the appendixed will does Forster, proper Victorian and friend of the Dickens family, mention the young actress whom Kaplan describes as the "catalyst" (410) rather than the cause of the separation. Forster, conceding only that Dickens's conduct with respect to Catherine serves as an "illustration of grave defects" (II: 147) in his character, clearly wishes to avoid the whole topic of the breakdown in the marriage. "Thenceforward," concludes Forster, "he and his wife lived apart." Johnson is less discrete, naming Ellen Ternan as Dickens's mistress and providing 27 references to her, including her presence in the railway carriage with Dickens during the Staplehurst accident in June, 1865. Whereas Johnson refuses to speculate about the liaison, offering documented evidence instead of conjecture, in his 81 references to her Ackroyd displays an intense fascination with the Ternan affair that goes far beyond Kaplan's romantic but reasonably factual 43. Although as Spurling suggests, "Kaplan has painstakingly reconstructed Mrs. Dickens's story from external evidence" (XI), he eschews speculation about where and how the novelist and the actress conducted their relationship. Kaplan's sympathy for Catherine and reluctance to speculate about Dickens's relationship with Miss Ternan result in his merely alluding to "the misdelivered-necklace incident" (386). Ackroyd with the determination of a modern investigative reporter works through the various versions of this story, in which a bracelet or "a brooch which contained . . . [Dickens'] portrait or his initials" (808) was somehow sent to Catherine by the jeweller. Ackroyd concludes that the many versions are merely a piece of the confusions, hearsay, and rumours about the separation of the Dickenses that were in circulation in 1858. Very much a literary detective, Ackroyd also tracks Ellen's residences carefully, noting for example that in Slough Dickens lived near the Ternans under the alias Charles or John Tringham.

Although Forster had mentioned both the Staplehurst railway accident and its long-term effects on Dickens' psyche (II: 209-210, 179), he had made it neither the vivid, powerfully-moving tale it becomes under Johnson's hands, nor the dramatic moment it is in Kaplan, nor the illustration of Dickens's personal heroism that Ackroyd makes it. Unlike previous biographers, Ackroyd explains what caused the derailment (the foreman in charge of a works crew had both misread a timetable and posted his flagman too close to the work-site) and provides some highly pertinent details about the fatal wreck of the 2:38 tidal train from Folkestone, on which Dickens was riding in the same compartment as Ellen and Mrs. Ternan (not merely a nameless "old lady" as in Johnson, p. 1019). Providing some of the same details as Johnson, Kaplan adds the final speed of the locomotive and assigns Mrs. Ternan a part in the scene; however, not surprisingly it is Ackroyd who provides the most factually- convincing and most detailed account:

The train approached the broken line at a speed of between twenty and thirty miles per hour [having been travelling at fifty m. p. h. when the engineer saw the flagman], jumped the gap of forty-two feet, and swerved off the track as the central and rear carriages fell below. All of the seven first-class carriages plummeted downwards--except one and that one, held by its couplings onto the second-class carriage in front, was occupied by Charles Dickens and the Ternans (959).

Although it sometimes lacks such detail, Kaplan's biography has the great merit of readability: one will neither fall asleep nor hurl down the volume in frustration. Examples of Kaplan's ability to recount a story in a manner that generates reader interest are his narrations of the Staplehurst accident and of Dickens' ascent of Mount Vesuvius. His re-telling of the accident is vigorous and moving, filled with a sense of movement and action, and made all the more immediate and vivid through snatches of dialogue. Twenty years earlier, on the night of 21 January 1845, despite the screams of his courier, Roche, "that they would be killed" (186), Dickens had flung himself into as grave a danger, pressing the party's head guide to conduct him to the very brink of the inferno. The descent was not without incident: "the head guide staggered, slipped, and plunged head first," landing on the ice-covered rocks 500 feet below, and another of the 22 guides "stumbled and rolled down past . . . [Dickens, Georgina, and Catherine], shrieking in pain and terror" (186).

Being a thorough Dickens scholar (he is editor of Dickens Studies Annual), Kaplan connects Dickens' experience at Vesuvius to that at Niagara Falls in April, 1842. His recounting of Dickens' death, for example, is moving, but Kaplan underplays Ellen's presence, and mentions only that the novelist's dying words were, "'Yes, on the ground'" (354). Ackroyd, in preparation for writing the biography having read three times over anything Dickens ever wrote, is the only biographer of Dickens to make the connection between those words and his novels:

His last words. And is it possible that he had in some bewildered way echoed the words of Louisa Gradgrind to her errant father in Hard Times, "I shall die if you hold me! Let me fall upon the ground!'"? And were his other characters around him as he lay unconscious through his last night? . . . . And can we see them now, the ghosts of Dickens's imagination, hovering around him as he approaches his own death? (1078)

Ackroyd's subsequent epic catalogue of some fifty characters seems out of place, an unwarranted intrusion, a rhetorical trick unworthy of the moment. Had Ackroyd stopped with "Charles Dickens had left the world" (1079), the reader might have felt moved by the final sob and the tear that, as in Kaplan and Johnson, "rose to his right eye and trickled down his cheek." Dickens should properly be the focal point of his own demise. However, Ackroyd robs this, the ultimate climax of any life, of its dramatic impact by moving on to a "Postscript" which ends with Mamie's saying goodbye to every room at Gadshill, and Catherine's breaking down three years later at a London performance of an adaptation of Dombey and Son.

In contrast, Forster's account of Dickens' last moments is terse and clinical:

There was effusion on the brain; and though stertorous breathing continued all night, and until ten minutes past six o'clock on the evening of Thursday the 9th of June, there had never been a gleam of hope during the twenty-four hours. He had lived four months beyond his 58th year (II: 296).

Forster's discussion of the funeral rises to a peroration as he quotes Westminster's Dean Stanley's pronouncement that the place of Dickens' burial "would thenceforward be a sacred one with both the New World and the Old, as that of the representative of the literature, not of this island only, but of all who speak our English tongue" (II: 297-8). However, Forster spoils both the effect and the image of Dickens' grave in Poets' Corner by mentioning Richard Cumberland's, Mrs. Pritchard's, and David Garrick's graves nearby as evoking "The highest associations of both the arts he [Dickens] loved" (II: 298). Forster redeems himself in his final sentence:

Facing the grave, and on its left and right, are the monuments of CHAUCER, SHAKESPEARE, and DRYDEN, the three immortals who did most to create and settle the language to which CHARLES DICKENS has given another undying name (II: 298).

Johnson cannot match Forster's power and solemnity, but he exceeds his predecessor in detail, movement, and freshness, quoting the elegy given in Punch --

"He sleeps as he should sleep -- among the great
In the old Abbey: sleeps amid the few
Of England's famous thousands whose high state
Is to lie with her monarchs — monarchs too" (II: 1157)--

and places Dickens' resting place at the foot of Handel's and by the side of Macaulay's, attended by "the busts of Milton and Spenser and the monuments of Dryden, Chaucer, and Shakespeare" (II: 1157). To Johnson as to the well-informed and imaginative reader these names connote the highest reaches of music, history, satire, comedy, humanity, and tragedy; they sum up the nature of the literary achievement of Charles John Huffam Dickens.

Kaplan closes with the matter-of-fact detail that, when Dean Stanley asked Forster's permission to leave the grave unsealed for the remainder of the day that the nation might pay their greatest novelist his due, the dead man's executor replied, "'Yes; now my work is over, and you may do what you like'" (556). The line is one which Kaplan exploits for a second meaning by virtue of its being the last line of his text. It is, perhaps, a fitting exodus or anti-masque, but those who would rather think of Dickens still very much alive in his creations will likely prefer Johnson's closing to all the rest:

More than eighty years have passed since Charles Dickens died. His passionate heart has long crumbled to dust. But the world he created shines with undying life, and the hearts of men still vibrate to his indignant anger, his love, his tears, his glorious laughter, and his triumphant faith in the dignity of man (II: 1158).

Those are the noblest, most affecting, and most truthful words ever written about Dickens, even though in some measure Johnson's biography falls short of the rhetoric of Forster, the charm of Kaplan, and the originality and thoroughness of Ackroyd.

Although, as the Pall Mall Gazette for 20 January 1890 observes of Collins's critical powers, "His estimates of some of Dickens's stories are terse, direct, and vigorous" (3), in the later years of Dickens' life there was not that closeness between Collins, the successful writer of thrillers, and his former mentor that the pair had enjoyed in Collins' youth. As Hesketh Pearson notes,

knowing that Forster had every intention of writing his biography, [Dickens] maintained their relationship as best he could and dared not nominate anyone else as his executor, even if there had been anyone else equally trustworthy, equally capable, equally authoritative, equally well informed.

Wilkie Collins, had he been willing to act in that capacity, was not the man for the job; and apart from the absence of his name from the will, there is evidence that Dickens was cooling towards him in the last years. They were seldom together; their correspondence almost ceased. . . (344).

Even though Collins "had no successor in the confidence of Dickens" (Pearson 344), Forster continued to work closely with Dickens right to the end, the novelist reading each number of The Mystery of Edwin Drood , for example, before sending it to the printer. Even the anonymous writer of the Pall Mall Gazette article, speculating about the possibility of a Dickens biography by Collins, does not suppress the younger novelist's final note on Forster: "The assertion (quite sincerely made) that no letters addressed by Dickens to other old friends revealed his character so frankly and completely as his letters to Forster, it is not necessary to contradict" (3). Perhaps in these lines, inscribed on page 442 of Collins's copy of Forster's Life is the clue as to why Collins did not attempt the subject himself, despite his warm relationship with the 'Great Inimitable' in the 1850s. Forster's knowledge of Dickens throughout his career, from the days of Pickwick and Chuzzlewit when CD aspired to the title of "The Fielding of the Nineteenth Century" to his experimentation with the new psychological style pioneered by Collins himself, was simply greater than that of any other Dickens contemporary. Thus, no matter what biographies of Dickens will be written in later times, the font of biographical Dickens will continue to be Forster's three-volume Life.

Selected List of References

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Carey, John. "Paper Tiger" [Review of Ackroyd's Dickens]. The Sunday Times [London] (2 September 1990): Sec. 8, p. 1.

Fadiman, Clifton. "Dickens: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd." BookNews (Book-of-the- Month Club) April 1991: 2-3.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, n. d. 2 vols. [Originally published in 3 vols., 1872-4.]

Johnson, Edgar.Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952; 1 vol., revised and abridged, New York: Viking, 1977.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography . New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Pearson,Hesketh. Dickens: His Character, Comedy and Career. London: Cassell, 1949.

Spurling, Hilary. "Driven by Furies" [review of Kaplan's Dickens: Biography]. Weekend Telegraph [London] (19 November 1988): XI.

"Wilkie Collins About Charles Dickens." The Pall Mall Gazette 10 January 1890: 3.

Created 4 November 2000

Last modified 20 February 2024