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.

30 September 2011

 The Dickens year started off in London last weekend with a big newsprint bang. On Saturday the 24th the Guardian opened bicentenary celebrations with a picture on the cover of the Review section of Dickens crossing the English Channel (or la Manche if viewed from France) to do his Readings in the 1860s. Inside, the first article, spread across pages 2-4, was a sprightly and loving account by Claire Tomalin of “a very small episode in the life of Dickens,” but one that shows him, and her book, to great advantage: his defense as a juryman of a woman on trial for infanticide. Like Dickens himself, said by “an observant girl” to produce “a sort of brilliance in the room,” Tomalin’s biography promises to bring that generous and troubled spirit to life.

Following were two further full pages devoted to quick reviews of favorite novels by various celebrities: the actor (and forthcoming Dickens biographer) Simon Callow on, not surprisingly, Nicholas Nickleby, the reviewer and biographer D. J. Taylor, a little more surprisingly, on Sketches by Boz, and six others nominating mid-to-late period Dickens. Even more surprisingly, no one mentioned Pickwick or Oliver Twist. On a further page Uriah Heep took honors as one of the ten best “thin men”: in this case, described by “JM” (I’m not inward enough with Fleet Street to know who that is) as having a “life-denying thinness.” I would have said a life-sucking thinness, as Uriah feeds, without gaining physical weight, on the lives around him, notably his employer Mr. Wickfield’s. Starting on Sunday the Guardian launched a podcast of a Dickensian walk through Clerkenwell, and a call for readers to tell the paper about their favorite Dickens novel.

Next day, inserted in the Guardian’s “sister” paper, the Observer (the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper), was a large free “wallchart”—a poster with images by the multi-talented Chris Riddell, children’s book author and illustrator and the Observer’s political cartoonist. To my eye the characters are cleverly drawn but get only at the outward eccentricities of the figures, not the complex inner workings that recent generations have come to discover, both in analyzing Dickens’s writing more carefully and in portraying what earlier generations thought of as “flat” characters supremely in the round. Who, after seeing W. C. Fields impersonate Micawber, could not believe in that optimist’s existence? Or after witnessing John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby in the RSC production, would ever again suppose Nicholas’s uncle to be cardboard? Or after experiencing Martita Hunt as the fierce, vulnerable, and terribly needy victim of love Miss Havisham in David Lean’s 1946 film of Great Expectations, could imagine her as simply a clotheshorse in a tattered wedding dress? Riddell explains that his rendition of Miss Havisham is his “personal favourite. She’s a gothic monster, frozen in time, sitting in her faded wedding dress with her spider-infested wedding cake.”

Further into the Observer there is a splendid tribute to Helen Mirren (with a spectacular close up of her riveting face), and then three more pages about Claire Tomalin, her life and her forthcoming book, accompanied by a reproduction of the famous photograph of Dickens reading in the Gad’s Hill garden in 1865 to his daughters Mamie and Katie. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear Mirren read, maybe Lizzie Hexham from Our Mutual Friend or Helena Landless from Edwin Drood, both characters with grit!

 Alas, the Charles Dickens Museum is closed for renovation until mid-November, so those prompted by this run-up of publicity to walk to Doughty Street were unable to enter.  I encountered two groups of disappointed visitors.  The first consisted of three ladies from Rome whose children were in camp for a week so they flew to Britain and came to see Signore Dickens’s house. (Pictures from Italy has a lot to answer for, and so do the organizers of the superb conference on Dickens in Italy held in Genoa a few years ago. Silvio Berlusconi may never want to invite a Dickens heroine to his home for an evening, but many of his fellow citizens seem to be interested in going to Dickens’s residence.) Another group, apparently of American students on their first day of a course at Birkbeck College, University of London, were left standing in front of the closed door looking up at three floors of impenetrable windows. I’m thinking of holding some talks at the front of the Doughty Street terrace houses (the Museum is incorporating the one next door for ancillary museum functions so that the whole of number 48 can be restored to the time, 1837-39, when Dickens and his family occupied the premises). There is much to be seen and learned from the outside, as “Boz” knew when he read the hidden lives of occupants living behind the walls of London’s busy, dirty streets.

One needn’t visit any particular place in order to experience Dickens in all his many facets. Ask Michael Slater to dinner, as we did Thursday evening, and enjoy three-and-a-half hours of magnificent repartee, with Michael playing all the parts—of his thesis supervisors, interviewers, hosts during his hugely successful American tour last spring, audiences, and Dickens characters. I dare say that no one alive today commands the expressive range of Dickens’s prose and imagination more fully and joyfully.