Skip to Content
Search Icon

Arts and Letters

Beadles And Boards


The Mystery of Charles Dickens

A.N. Wilson
Harper, pp. 360, $32.50

Ours is an epoch in which happiness is thought of as an unconditional, unambiguous, and unreserved good. Among the rights rattled off in the Declaration of Independence, the seeking of a state of happiness has come to outrank life and liberty, and no humane, or sane, person would argue against the betterment of life or the improvement of society.

Yet, at the risk of sounding like the John Malkovich clown character in Woody Allen’s great comedy Shadows and Fog (“We’re not like other people—we’re artists!”), it is worth pointing out that a contented existence is seldom the ideal precondition for an artistically fulfilling one. Many of our first-rate writers, artists, and filmmakers carry with them the memory of traumas.

Call them the artists who won’t allow themselves to heal: Kurt Vonnegut never let go of being a witness to the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, a calamity referenced directly in Slaughterhouse-Five and implicitly throughout his bibliography, and Orson Welles, an orphan by adolescence, wrote late in his life that he believed he was responsible, on some abstract, nonliteral level, for his father’s death—an admission of betrayal for a filmmaker so often drawn to depicting betrayal among men. Late in his life, John Updike suggested in an interview that peace and plenty were, in fact, impediments to good character, saying, “There is no sense of austerity or doing without being any kind of a virtue. When I was a kid, there was all this talk about doing without: ‘It does you good to do without.’”

Eighty years ago, Edmund Wilson grasped hold of this notion with rare acuity in The Wound and the Bow, which established the tragic circumstances out of which great writers can emerge. Foremost among Wilson’s case studies was Charles Dickens, who, though born into relatively comfortable circumstances in 1812, experienced profound upheaval following his family’s relocation from unspoiled Chatham to teeming London. There followed a series of calamities: Charles’s father, John, was confined for a time to a debtors’ prison, and Charles himself worked at Warren’s Blacking Factory—hardly the environment in which a studious lad could thrive. “Through six months, in a rickety old house by the river, full of dirt and infested with rats, he pasted labels on blacking bottles, in the company of riverside boys who called him ‘the little gentleman,’” Wilson wrote. “He wanted terribly to go on with his schooling, and couldn’t grasp what had happened to him.”

This was catastrophe for the young Dickens, but as Wilson argued, without these formative jolts, the author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield would have been unlikely to emerge: “The work of Dickens’s whole career was an attempt to digest these early shocks and hardships, to explain them to himself, to justify himself in relation to them, to give an intelligible and tolerable picture of a world in which such things could occur.”

Now, eight decades after The Wound and the Bow, another Wilson has produced a study of Dickens that builds upon the earlier volume. The Mystery of Charles Dickens is not a straight-ahead biography but something far more revealing: a detailed, digressive, and finally deeply persuasive psychological portrait of its subject. And, like his predecessor, A.N. Wilson argues that the wounds from Dickens’s early life never fully healed and instead manifested themselves in books that depicted, again and again, a kind of Victorian horror show, with a particular focus on children who are neglected, orphaned, or otherwise thrown to the wind.

“He had grown up with parents who did midnight flits to avoid the bailiff,” Wilson writes. “He had seen, with the beady, knowing eyes of the clever child, the fecklessness and hopelessness of his parents. He had, in all likelihood, seen such scenes . . . of a dying woman giving birth on the pavement because she did not belong to the particular parish which administered that particular workhouse. He translated these experiences into the fairy-tale burlesque of Mr. Bumble and Oliver and the Artful Dodger not because it was unreal to him, but because it was real.”

In fact, throughout the book, Wilson offers a perspective on Dickens considerably more complicated than what he calls “the Dickens’s Dream version of the novelist”—a reference to an altogether delightful 1870 painting by Robert W. Buss that shows the author in repose while characters and scenes from his novels cloud the airspace around him, like so many gnats of the imagination. Whereas Dickens’s Dream celebrates its subject’s intensity of imagination, the present volume argues on behalf of his ability to transfigure episodes in his life into flights of fancy. His novels, Wilson writes, “are records of experience, and he would not have been able to write them had he not undergone the particular experiences that he underwent.”

Wilson does not mean to altogether discredit Dickens’s Dream—an enlargement from which serves as this book’s cover—but to complicate it. Indeed,the author has hit upon the ideal approach in dealing with a writer as popular and widely read as Dickens: without denying the novels’ superficial pleasures, Wilson asks us to burrow deeper and look longer, framing his book as his attempt to address what he calls “mysteries,” offering just beneath-the-surface explanations for what made Dickens’s works successful.

For example, Wilson links the fact that Dickens was chosen among his eight brothers and sisters to work at Warren’s Blacking with his elimination of sibling characters in David Copperfield: “Dickens/David was an orphan and an only child.” And, in Great Expectations, Dickens “killed off all his siblings, imagining them to be the babies in the graves on the edge of the marshes at Cooling, on the Hoo Peninsula near Rochester.”

Wilson ranges freely over Dickens’s life to make sense of his work, linking his notably unhappy marriage to Catherine Dickens (née Hogarth), who bore him ten children but to whom he was not faithful, with his novels’ overarching interest in “marital disintegration.” “Even in the early novel Oliver Twist, written in the first year of his marriage, a book that appears, at first, to be the melodrama of a child lost in the terrifying streets of criminal London, the theme of marital misery surfaces,” writes Wilson, who also explicates Dickens’s motives for founding Urania Cottage, intended as a place of respite and reform for “fallen women,” including prostitutes, and for giving his much-loved public readings. “Onstage and on page, Dickens was not merely an artist. He was a mesmerist.”

Wilson convincingly argues that Dickens is miscast in our minds as a conventional social reformer; he was committed to the altruistic impulse—this is, after all, the man who wrote A Christmas Carol—but by and large as it was manifested outside of institutions, which, whether created for kindly or nefarious purposes, he seems to have despised. One suspects that Dickens might have agreed with Lady Thatcher, who famously declared that there was no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families. “It is Mr. Brownlow who saves Oliver Twist, not the Poor Laws, with their hateful workhouses and their beadles and boards,” Wilson writes.

Most daringly, this book suggests that the reality of Dickens’s having endured life’s slings and arrows, while painful for the individual person, has been a net positive for all of humanity. His suffering helped make ours more bearable. In the final chapter, Wilson writes with bracing candor of his own wretched experiences in the English public school system during the Sixties and of how discovering Dickens, first in abbreviated school editions and later in their full glory, functioned as a kind of salve. “Certainly when I look at my own childhood, which had moments of abject terror and hopelessness, I realize that Dickens not only helped me through those moments . . . but also helped me in my horror-stricken recollection of those times,” Wilson writes. He quotes Santayana: “When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me that they can have no eyes and no ears.”

At one point, Wilson links Dickens’s view of poverty with that of Wordsworth, who, in “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” suggests that the prototypical bum ought not to be institutionalized because his mere existence “keeps something alive, throughout the human community, which any number of charities of Poor Laws would not be able to provide.” If Dickens’s childhood had been happier, millions of readers would have been deprived of his fiction. At one point, contrasting Dickens with several of his well-born contemporaries, including Tennyson and George Eliot, Wilson writes: “Dickens alone had not merely looked over into the abyss. He had lived it.” So, too, have those of us who have read and cherished his novels through the centuries.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, theWashington Examiner, and National Review.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?