The Mystery of Charles Dickens by A.N. Wilson

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Charles Dickens was one of the most loved authors of the Victorian era.  He created some of the best-known and best-loved characters in English literature and is regarded by some as the greatest author of the Victorian era.  Books by Dickens – such as Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol – are still bought and read in the twenty-first century.

Not only did he write novels which placed him in the pantheon of English literature, he was a superb performer and a great orator.  He ‘crammed many lifetimes into one’ [5] and these lifetimes included being the most celebrated novelist in the world, a journalist, an actor and public reader, a philanthropist, a family man and a secret lover [5].  As Dickens said of himself in a letter to a friend: ‘I have no relief, but in action.  I am incapable of rest… Much better to die doing’ [3].

Numerous biographies have been written about him but none has taken quite the same approach as does this latest work by A.N. Wilson.  Eschewing the narrative form of biography from birth to death, Wilson explores instead the source of Dickens’s imagination and his considerable energy – and attempts to explain the ‘mysteries’ surrounding particular aspects of his life.   Why is this so?  It is because Dickens himself gave only hints of his life in his letters and diaries.  The full story of his life is what he wrote out in his novels; especially as he did in arguably the most autobiographical of his novels – David Copperfield.  Elements of the novel are transposed almost without change from his childhood experiences.

A.N. Wilson contends that of all ‘the great figures of the Victorian public scene’ ]54], it was only Dickens who knew what is was like to ‘have fallen into the abyss’ – the abyss being the world of ‘workhouses and prisons and burglars and prostitutes on the run from police’ [54].  Victorian London was, like other major cities, a ‘monstrous, cruel, vibrant, life-pulsating, filth- and plague-infested death-factor[y]’.  It is this aspect of the novels that has led to their endurance – that is, they are opposed to institutions and appeal to their readers to be ‘kinder’.  An example from Oliver Twist demonstrates this idea.  Oliver is saved not by the Poor Laws or the workhouses [the institutions] but by Mr Brownlow – a kindly [emphasis added] middle-aged bachelor – who rescues him from Fagin.

In the chapter ‘The Mystery of his childhood’, Wilson argues that one of the defining moments of Dickens’s life was the appalling behaviour of his parents to the twelve-year-old Charles when they turned him out of home and forced him to work in a blacking factory for six shillings a week.  This was at a time when his father was earning £350 a year as a clerk.  Wilson believes that Dickens’s mother was incapable of giving him love and, in later years, his relationship with her was one of ‘cold contempt’.

In another chapter ‘The Mystery of the cruel marriage’, Wilson dissects the marriage of Dickens to Catherine Hogarth – the eventual mother of his ten children.  Consistent with the presumption that Dickens writes out his life in his novels, Wilson states that ‘Almost every one deals … with the theme of marital disintegration’ [127].  Even in Oliver Twist, kindly old Mr Brownlow says ‘I also know … the misery, the slow torture, the protracted anguish of that ill-assorted union’ [127].  For Wilson, the novelistic repetition of marriage disintegration reflects the reality of Dickens’s own marriage which was in his own words: ‘as miserable a one as ever was made’.  His contemptuous treatment of his wife reached a level where some of his friends refused to visit him at his house and witness it.

In common with many in this situation, Dickens looked outside his marriage to find someone to provide him with love.  When he was forty-five, he met Ellen [Nelly] Ternan who was eighteen.  Nelly was Dickens’s secret – they were ‘together’, but not married, for thirteen years until his death.  Nelly did not exist in the eyes of the world.  The extent to which Dickens would go to keep the relationship a secret is best illustrated by an incident which occurred in June 1865.  Dickens and Nelly were returning by train to London after a sojourn in France.  The train hit a bridge and fell into a river.  Dickens, Nelly and her mother were in a first-class carriage at the front of the train.  They were helped out through a window.  Dickens left to assist the second-class passengers while others cared for Nelly and her mother.  Later, in his Preface to Our Mutual Friend, he wrote of the incident but made no mention of his travelling companions.  Instead, he wrote of two of the characters from the novel as if they were with him on the train.  As Wilson believes, Dickens’s characters ‘came from so deep a part of himself, that they were capable of swallowing him up’ [20].

In the final chapter ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’, Wilson quotes Gwen Watkins [299] who believed that Dickens was a tragic writer because in most of his books ‘he shows us what it feels like to be, or to have been, a child who can never find what it has never been given, its birthright of love’.  This gaping hole, Wilson contends, is what lies at the heart of Charles Dickens.  Wilson reflects on his own schooldays at an English public school where the boys were regularly and cruelly thrashed by a sexual sadist.  He describes the school as a ‘concentration camp run by sexual perverts’ – a very harsh assessment.  But Wilson found redemption in the novels of Dickens for the reason quoted above – that the reader responds to Dickens because Dickens has been there before him.

The question which begs to be answered is how the public persona [the great author, the actor, the journalist and the philanthropist] is to be reconciled with the private [the family man and the secret lover].  Wilson refers to the concept of ‘false self’ originally introduced by Donald Winnicott – a psychotherapist – in 1960.  Essentially, it means that a ‘badly parented child has to … learn to be a False Self in order, usually unsuccessfully, to please its parents’ [96].  These people tend to grow up as ‘manipulative, cruel and controlling people incapable of making their own partners or children happy’ [96].  Wilson argues that Dickens appears to be a textbook case but it was this false self which drove his art and created, in Wilson’s estimation, the greatest of the Victorian authors.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens is an enthralling read.  AN Wilson is an erudite, intelligent writer who has – in my estimation – brought Dickens to life in a way which many biographies don’t quite manage.  Drawing on first, his love for the novels and second, his wide reading of various books and articles about Dickens, Wilson has crafted a work which should be read.  As stated above, the book is not a narrative biography but instead provides a fresh insight into Dickens’s world and sheds a brighter light on his novels and the sources of his imagination.  The text is well supported by comprehensive Notes and Index.

AN Wilson was educated at Rugby and New College at Oxford.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has a prominent position in the world of journalism and literature.  He has written a number of biographies including those of Queen Victoria [Victoria] and Prince Albert [Prince Albert], John Milton, Charles Darwin and Tolstoy.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens


by A.N. Wilson


ISBN 978 1 7864 791 8

$39.99; 358pp

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