10th October 2011

Dickens continues to make news nearly every day here in London. On the first day of the month the Saturday Guardian carried a half-page of blogs from readers responding to the extract from Claire Tomalin’s new biography published the previous weekend. The next day in the Observer, the novelist William Boyd raved about the book: “This is a superb biography of a great writer—and it is a beautifully produced book, it should be said, with copious illustrations” (The New Review, 44-45). Indeed, Penguin/Viking have gone to great lengths in book design: maps of Dickens territories, three inserts of photographs, and the cast of characters in Dickens’s family and life.

Monday evening Harvard University Press hosted a sumptuous launch of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens. This biography tracks the first few years of Dickens’s writing career, but it does so by associating the moves and subjects Dickens chooses in those times with alternatives he might have picked and with echoes and associations recorded years later by Dickens and by many others. Its “counter-factuality” and dazzlingly associative narrative break new biographical ground. The reception was held at the Foundling Museum, tribute to the charity Thomas Coram established by Royal Charter in 1739. Handel composed and performed pieces there, including a rendition of The Messiah, and Hogarth not only painted Coram’s portrait but also persuaded his friends to contribute pictures as well. So the setting for a book that has Oliver Twist as a focus could not have been better chosen. (Johanna Elizabeth Brownlow, an employee of Coram’s Hospital for years, may have lent her surname to Dickens’s rescuer of an orphan, Mr. Brownlow.) Several prominent Dickensians were present to celebrate the occasion, including John Bowen and David Paroissien. Lindsay Duguid, recently fiction editor (and a fine one) at the TLS, also joined in the celebration, which comprised speeches, toasts, and lashings of champagne, wine, and assorted hors d’oeuvres.

The most astonishing news of the week was reported in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph. As the headline put it, “Dickens to boost ties with Iran.” The British Council, it seems, plans to improve cultural relations with Syria and Zimbabwe by screening adaptations of Dickens’s novels, while Iran will participate in an exchange program between young British and Iranian writers. All three countries, I think—the news release was very vague–will be supplied with teaching materials exploring the idea of heroes and villains in Dickens’s novels: shades of Juliet John’s recent book on Dickens’s Villains!

There’s more on the villains. In The Observer for 9 October John Hurt reports on “The Film That Changed My Life.” It was Alec Guinness’s Fagin in the David Lean 1948 Oliver Twist. Given that Guinness’s performance was perceived by many as anti-Semitic and inappropriate just after the war—indeed he turned to Ealing comedies for the subsequent decade—Hurt’s testimony becomes more interesting: Guinness’s “unforgettable performance . . . was the first time, on film, I’d seen an actor practice the theatrical tradition of taking himself to the part, rather than the other way round” (The New Review, p. 25). Guinness’s portrayal owes much both to Dickens’s dialogue and to George Cruikshank’s illustrations, and Ron Moody, the original Fagin in Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! (1960), owed much to Guinness.

The day before, Jenny Uglow, biographer, critic, and editorial director of Chatto and Windus, reviewed the Douglas-Fairhurst and Tomalin biographies. “A man in a hurry,” as the lead says, his frantic activity is well captured in Tomalin’s “onward-driven, hypnotically vivid life” (Saturday Guardian, Review, p. 7). Dickens’s life and his literary production are almost impossible to combine in a single book: it took Edgar Johnson two volumes for his Book of the Month Club biography, and then he cordoned off (“ring-fenced” in Britain) the chapters on the fiction. Tomalin gets at the driven quality of his life and its emotional intensities, but at some cost to a fuller analysis of what he shared with, and how he differed from, his contemporaries. Douglas-Fairhurst, concentrating on the smaller canvas of Dickens’s beginnings, blurs that focus by relating 1830s events and statements to events and statements in other decades, even by other persons. One unfortunate slip that some reader or copy-editor should have caught: the preface to Pickwick that Douglas-Fairhurst rightly makes much of as the foundational account by Dickens of the origin of that path-breaking novel was published in the Cheap Edition of 1847, when Dickens was re-writing and re-fashioning his own life in the autobiographical fragment, having killed off Paul Dombey, one avatar, and being in the process of preparing for David Copperfield, another, closer model of his own life.  Douglas-Fairhurst consistently dates it 1867, where it does appear as part of the Charles Dickens Edition of Pickwick, but at a very much later state in Dickens’s own self-creation.

Ever since Michael Slater and John Drew called attention to Dickens’s journalism, biographers and critics have been reassessing his politics. His religion, on the other hand, seems to reside in a deep part of his psyche even though it emerges overtly either in criticism of hypocritical preachers (e.g. Stiggins) and misguided sectarian practices (e.g. the Bleak House ladies Jellyby and Pardiggle) or in the rather low church, almost Unitarian version of The Life of Our Lord, which he wrote for his children at the time he was composing Copperfield. Some compensation has been made this week: the Saturday Guardian (Review, p. 13) lists “ten of the best Cathedrals,” and Rochester Cathedral, relocated to “Cloisterham” for Edwin Drood, comes in at number two, ahead of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Emma commences her assignation with Léon Dupuis in Rouen Cathedral), and Trollope’s Barchester Cathedral in The Warden.

 I’m sure I’ve missed many mentions of Dickens in other papers and in other media. This is just the record of what one visitor to Britain (with very limited funds to spend!) notices about the pervasiveness of Dickens in this culture—not only on account of Dickens 2012, but, as John Hurt’s interview indicates, in the culture going back a long ways in time. If the award-winning actor who played Richard Rich in The Man for All Seasons, Caligula, the Elephant Man, and the wandmaker Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter films, learned his craft, in part, from Alec Guinness channeling Fagin, Dickens survives in manifold unexpected ways.