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. John 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, four recent scalers of that English literary edifice are particularly noteworthy: American Dickens scholar Fred Kaplan, British novelist Peter Ackroyd, Dickens scholar and former Dickensian editor Michael Slater, and author of The Invisible Woman (2012), Claire Tomlin. Against these modern biographers who have been influenced variously by Sigmund Freud, television, and The National Enquirer, one employs the standards set by Dickens' friend, agent, and confidant, John Forster. Forster's biography is both 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's grave), and an Horatio Alger story (its last word being in the appendixed will "£93,000" (II: 301). Forster was not merely one of the closest friends 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 that 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 undoubtedly 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 Dickens's life with considerable sympathy, as though it were a novel. Like Forster in the two-volume edition, Edgar Johnson in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 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 in 1812 at Portsmouth, but with the rambling, old Georgian mansion still called Gad's Hill Place in Kent. This is both Dickens's destination as a mature Victorian pater familias and a symbol of his meteoric artistic and financial successes. Halting at page 10, towards the end of Dickens's second year on earth, one is brought to a halt by 16 pages of illustrations, cramped three to a 5" x 7.5" page. Then the narrative continues with Dickens's childhood in Rochester and Chatham ("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, as 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 Charles Dickens' first American visit (1841-442). John 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 for General Circulation). 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 1 February 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, those by Professor Joel Kaplan (1988) and Peter 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 thirty 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's position on international 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's 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). The ends, fore Kaplan, justify the means.

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, friend of the Dickens family, and safeguarder of the great man's reputation — mention the young actress whom Kaplan describes as the "catalyst" (410) rather than the cause of the separation of Charles and Catherine Dickens. 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 of three decades. "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 on 24 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 delivered in error 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's 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 twenty-two guides "stumbled and rolled down past . . . [Dickens, Georgina, and Catherine], shrieking in pain and terror" (186).

Being a thorough Dickens scholar (he remains one of the editors of the Dickens Studies Annual), Kaplan connects Dickens's 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 moment and 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.

A Postscript: Further Biographies by Michael Slater (2009) and Claire Tomalin (2011)

To an American audience these days, any mention of Dickens is likely to conjure more images of public television adaptations of his work than the season does sugar plum fairies. Put that all out of your head. Even if you think you know Dickens, you don't know him in this new and altogether invigorating way. Slater, the emeritus professor of Victorian literature at the University of London's Birkbeck College, is this era's preeminent Dickens scholar and author of many volumes on the writer who not only fascinates him but whom he also self-evidently holds in great affection. This new volume, however, is more than a scholarly career's summation. It gives us a new way of understanding Dickens the protean author by organizing an account of his life around the activity that, in fact, organized his life — writing (the English edition, in fact, carries the subtitle "A Life Defined by Writing"). — Tim Rutten, 2009.

Although an interesting analysis of Dickens during a formative period in his life, the 1830s, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (2013) is not comparable to the other post-Ackroyd biographies in that it does not give us, as it were, the whole Dickens, but rather investigates the young writer who, torn by having to chose between competing career paths, eventually became England's leading novelist, but never abandoned his passions for journalism and the theatre, although the cut-off date of 1840 does not give the reader a chance to consider Dickens's editorships of Household Words and All the Year Round, or his amateur acting and directing that led to the stage triumph of The Frozen Deep, let alone his transatlantic public readings. If Peter Ackroyd's mammoth tome has set the standard for modern interpretations of Charles Dickens, beginning with the writer's death at Gad's Hill, his Kent estate, in June 1870, and then taking us back to his humble origins, Claire Tomlin's method of attack is reminiscent of that of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst as she begins, as it were, in medias res with young Dickens in epitome, when the twenty-eight-year-old writer, now the author of the Sketches, Pickwick, and Oliver, served as a juror in a coroner's inquest.

Mostly, the recent biographies are remixes of familiar episodes and anecdotes; their interest lies largely in what’s included and what’s left out, how deeply the biographer goes into unpublished or unfamiliar work, and what’s adduced from further research into the world in which Dickens lived and worked. — David Gates, New York Times, "Sunday Book Review," 3 November 2011.

If one is looking for a quick, entertaining​ read, Claire Tomalin's gripping, novelistic treatment of Dickens's life will be preferable to the meticulously researched, amply documented, and painstakingly detailed (to say nothing of "lengthy") versions by Peter Ackroyd and Michael Slater, although the latter version, at 917 pages, is not so concerned with the biographical "plot" as with the influence of events and people upon Dickens's development as a writer. Claire Tomalin begins her biography in a daring fashion by providing a list of the principal players (so that readers will not get lost​ in a life full of events and social interactions) and then avoiding the "I am born" opening in favour of an in medias res point of attack, the crucial year of 1840, when Dickens had become a novelist with a grand income and an even grander lifestyle to support. Despite his new-found social status and constant need to write in order to support a growing family, the twenty-eight-year-old son of a ne'er-do-well civil servant and former inmate of a debtors' prison champions the cause of a servant-girl accused of doing away with her own infant. This novelistic approach to her material is Tomalin's strategy for revealing Dickens's character by showing him in action, and thereby utterly engaging the reader from the opening page, or rather from the thirty-ninth page of the book, for the "Prologue: The Inimitable, 1840" (pp. ixl-xlvii) comes after the usual indexes, and the somewhat unsual "Key to Maps" and a sixteen-page "Cast List."

Michael Slater's approach, although equally engaging, is far more erudite as he tackles the writer's biography through the writer's work, focussing on the plight of children. Outwardly, his volume does not look that much different from Tomalin's: the two books are of almost identical outward proportions and have pictures of Dickens on their covers, with the authors' names prominently displayed. At 696 pages, Michael Slater's is 169 pages longer than Claire Tomalin's biography, the chief difference lying in his 72 pages (in fine print, for the most part) of notes, bibliography, and a 25-page index. This, then, is a scholarly book that can be cited by researchers; like Ackroyd's and Johnson's, this is an authoritative biography. Tomalin ends her final chapter on p. 417, so that over one hundred pages in her volume are taken up with "Notes" (74 pages) and "Index" (31 pages) in regular print. In other words, over twenty per cent of Tomalin's book and about ten per cent of Slater's are occupied with supporting material for 27 chapters in each case. Although each book is similarly organised, Slater's is slightly more generously illustrated, containing 61 illustrations within the text of the pages and a further 80 full-page plates (the index for the latter, inconveniently does not list pages for this "inserted" section of black-and-white photographs), whereas Tomalin's has four pages of "Key to Maps" of "Gad's Hill and Rochester," "Dickens in Central London," and "Dickens in North London," sixteen pages of 79 inset photographs and 13 illustrations dropped into the text itself. Tomalin's illustrations are what a reader of biographies might expect: portraits of the great man; places Dickens lived and spoke; members of his family; literary, political, commercial, and artistic friends and acquaintances; and a few plates from various editions of Dickens's publications and Forster's Life. The mix is similar in Slater, who also includes such interesting visuals as "Mast-head for new series of All the Year Round, December 1868" (p. 593), the wrapper by Hablot Knight Browne​ for Dombey and Son ​(opposite p. 413), and the lampooning 1868 cartoon Dickens kills off a character by Walter Wilding from The Mask ​(bottom, p. 587). Slater has been scrupulous​ in the positioning of his plates dropped into the text, with good effect, as with the full-sized Cruikshank Bentley's ​engraving for January 1837, Ned Twigger in the kitchen of Mudfog House (occupying most of page 87, where Slater discusses that initial article of what would become The Mudfog Papers.

The captions in Tomalin's book, however, are an outstanding feature; for example, for the twenty-second chapter, "The Bebelle Life 1862-1865," Tomalin has an undated, unascribed photograph of a Dickens whose face is badly ravaged by time with the caption​ The old lion, grizzled, ravaged, fierce, not giving up. He disliked being photographed but he put up with it, sitting at his desk, quill pen in hand — inimitable as ever (opposite p. 337). Searching the list of illustrations, one discovers that the photograph was taken by Mason in "1865 or later," so that the "old lion" was in fact in his early fifties. Neither biographer keeps much back. Although neither biography is an exposé, Tomalin does not shy away from describing "deteriorating marriage relations" and has extensive references to Dickens's young mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, amounting to ninety pages, although she does not appear in the main "Cast List" and is not designated in the special sublist for "The Ternan Family" (xxv) as Dickens's mistress, in the "Third Inset" series she appears on pages 2 and 6 with extensive commentaries under each which emphasize that "Nelly" sacrificed: "Nelly, Dickens's 'magic circle of one', was, he said, gentle, proud and self-reliant, had much to bear alone, and would be distressed if her history were known" (Inset 3, p. 6). Although Tomalin does not directly address the issue of whether the novelist and his mistress had a child, she covers their clandestine travels to France and Ellen’s later life, when she lived with the constant apprehension that her children would learn of her sexual relationship with Dickens. CD in 1856 comes off rather better than one might expect, expressing concern for his betrayed wife and not wishing to "add to her pain by a hair's breath" (297), but more or less exonerating both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray from blame for the rift that developed after Thackeray had revealed in conversation at London's Garrick Club that Dickens was not having an affair with his sister-in-law (Georgina Hogarth) but with an actress, and

Dickens wrote to him to deny everything. The two men fell out further over another dispute at the Garrick Club, where Dickens's brash young friend Edmund Yates had insulted Thackeray, and the friendship between the two great novelists came to end. The news of Dickens's separation reached as far as Germany, where Marian Evans (George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes heard it, and perhaps disapproved less than others, being themselves an adulterous couple." [297-98]

Against the triumph of the public readings Tomalin juxtaposes the private anguish of family breakup as Dickens desperately tried to preserve his persona for his readers, but only goes so far to criticize him by remarking that "A villain does well to have a certain blitheness" (301) and that a guilt-ridden Dickens could not project such "blitheness." Although Michael Slater sees Dickens's life through the filter of his writing, he nonetheless devotes 75 pages to her "ongoing relationship" with the novelist, acknowledges her presence at Staplehurst, and residences with CD at Peckham, Slough, and even Condette, and provides a small photograph simply captioned "Nelly Ternan (1857)." After appearing briefly in "Performing The Frozen Deep and Finishing Little Dorrit, 1857," she figures prominently in Chapter 19, "Writing Off a Marriage: 1857-1858​," and is important to Slater insofar as she is reflected to a greater or lesser extent in such later Dickens heroines as Lucie Manette (after "Lucy," the role she enacted in The Frozen Deep), Bella Wilfer, Helena Landless, and Estella:​

[Lucie] physically resembles Nelly, even down to a characteristic expression of countenance: she has 'a short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes . . . and a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions' (Tale of Two Cities, Bk I, ch. 4). Apart from her physical appearance, however, Lucie Manette has proved a sad disappointment to Dickens biographers. Heroine of a novel that is plot- rather than character-centred, and being unable as a model Victorian daughter/wife/mother to originate any action that might 'pound out' her character 'in its own mortar', she remains a blank for all those wanting to find in her traces of Nelly, or at least some clue as to Dickens's feelings towards his 'little riddle' at this time. Biographers soon abandon her​for the more suggestive and rewarding figures of her successor-heroines Estella, Bella Wilfer and Helena Landless. [471]

Of Dickens's three "identities" — pater familias, public man of letters, and clandestine lover — the second is Slater's focus, so that Slater continually mines the raw material of biography to shed light on Dickens's state of mind when he was writing greater and lesser works. Knowing not just the facts of Dickens's life, but also his writings and others' criticisms of them with a breath-taking, encyclopedic thoroughness, Slater is uniquely positioned among Dickens's biographers to assess the continuing impact of writer's early life against the influence of the affair with Ellen Ternan on the later novels such as Great Expectations:

Biographers and biographical critics have detected various connections between Dickens's personal life and characters in​ Great Expectations​— that he may have drawn on Charley for certain aspects of Herbert Pocket, for example. Above all, there has been a general assumption since the revelations about his relationship with Nelly Ternan that Pip's anguished love for 'heartless' Estella reflects Dickens's passion for a cold and unresponsive Nelly. But, as will have become abundantly clear, we have very little evidence as to what Dickens and Nelly's relations actually were at this time, apart from Berger's story about Dickens's going to Houghton Place to play cards with Nelly under her mother's eye (they did not, one assumes, play 'beggar my neighbour'​as did Pip and Estella under Miss Havisham's) and to sing duets with her at the piano, none of which sounds particularly lacerating. To me, it has always seemed more likely, in fact, that in this novel of sadly chastened retrospection, Dickens's depiction of the young adult Pip's sufferings at the hands of Estella owes more to memories of those now distant years of tormenting enslavement to Maria Beadnell that he had earlier turned to such favour and​ such prettiness when writing David Copperfield.

The most interesting thing about Great Expectations​from a biographical point of view is what we know of Dickens's general state of mind when he was at work on the story. He found, he confided to Forster in the following year, that 'a certain shrinking sensitiveness' bred in him in the old blacking factory days had returned in 'the never-to-be-fogotten misery of this later time' (that is, I take it, since 1857/58) and this 'shrinking sensitiveness' is very much one of Pip's characteristics. Dickens was not only psychologically distressed but also physically unwell. He was afflicted in particular with what he called 'neuralgic pains in the face', pains that vanished the moment he had written the last word of the story. He was, moreover, feeling oppressed by all the heavy demands on his purse, what he calls in a letter to Wills of 11 March those 'enormous drags upon me which are already added to the charges of my own large family' — and also, presumably, the cost of supporting Nelly and her family: 'I declare to you', he told Wills in this same letter (remembering, perhaps, that terrifying Atlantic crossing of January 1842) 'that what with my mother — and Alfred's family — and my Angel Wife — and a Saunders [seemingly an applicant for financial help] or so — I seem to stop sometimes like a steamer in a storm, and deliberate whether I shall go whirling, or go down'. Against all these troubles and vexations he found public solace in his contact with his fervently responsive audiences, who flocked to his new series of London public readings, and, no doubt, private solace in the company of Nelly and her family. — "Serials, Series and Stories: Writing for All the Year Round, 1859-1861," p. 492-493.

In other words, biography has its limits in informing interpretations of an imaginative work such as Great Expectations, which may superficially resemble a biography, but in fact merely takes as its point of departure the actual experiences of the novelist. The conclusion of the Slater biography is not CD's death, but the re-assessment of him as a man that occurred during the 1930s as the Ellen Ternan connection came to light and the public began to perceive Dickens as a far more conflicted and modern figure — "a darker, more turbulent, and altogether more complex figure" (623); but juxtaposed against that fresh perception of the greatest Victorian novelist is Fred Barnard's title-page vignette from the Household Edition of Forster's Life of Dickens, depicting the poor drudge who has fallen asleep at his workbench in the blacking factory writing labels. From this position of utter neglect and degradation (stranger than his fiction) that sensitive, abandoned twelve-year-old rose within two decades to become — and remain — a household word.

In between novels, Dickens was a magazine editor for most of his adult life, and he endlessly spoke and sat on committees for a variety of good causes. He also raised funds for many children of friends, left orphaned and destitute, sometimes remaining a paternal presence in their lives for decades.

This was greatly at odds with his treatment of his own family, and Tomalin draws a deft picture of a man who overcame his childhood traumas through his own efforts, and who therefore believed that "everything was possible to the will that would make it so."

He resented his wife for her endless pregnancies (11 in 15 years), apparently overlooking his necessary involvement, and he resented his sons, in particular, for having the comfortable middle-class childhoods he had lacked. He found it hard, he said, to show his feelings to his children, but in fact, as Tomalin shows, really he found it hard to have those feelings, writing, after one son repeatedly ran into debt, to his brother, "I begin to wish that he were honestly dead."

And when Dickens fell in love with Nelly Ternan, who was his children’s contemporary, it was not enough for this novelist of domestic harmony to separate quietly from his wife of more than two decades: he needed to proclaim to the world her numerous flaws, and ensure the world agreed with him.

Yet, as Tomalin shows, he was also a man of charm and warmth, with an endless ability to take pains, even for those he would never see again: after serving on a jury, he went to some trouble to see that the accused was sent food and other comforts in prison. And before a children’s birthday party, worried that he had forgotten the polka his daughters had taught him, this middle-aged man, the most successful novelist the world had ever seen, got up to dance gravely by himself, alone in his room in the middle of the night.

Tomalin’s psychological analysis is acute, isolating that elusive something that made Dickens great. At these moments her authorial voice shifts and she no longer tells us, but comes over to our side: "we think,"​she writes, not "I think."​She is as much gripped by the unrolling drama as her readers.

. . . . There have been many biographies in the past, and no doubt more are in the pipeline as the bicentenary of Dickens's birth [2012] approaches. But few will have Tomalin's sympathy and insight for this tormented man, a man who, in A Christmas Carol, drew a picture of "horror, despair, hope and warmth,"​in a story that assures its readers "that good cheer, food and drink shared, gifts and even dancing"​are "basic expressions of love and mutual support." — Judith Flanders.

Claire Tomalin concludes her story of the life of Charles Dickens in an even more unconventional manner than Peter Ackroyd by providing a glimpse of Ellen Ternan's son, Geoffrey, who only discovered the Dickens connection after he returned from military service in 1920, and confronted Henry Dickens about the story that Charles and Nelly had had a son.

The existence of the son was confirmed to Miss Storey [young confidant of Kate Perugini, Dickens's daughter] by Henry Dickens, who told her 'there was a boy but it died', and also that Nelly's son Geoffrey had come to him to ask if it was true that his mother was Dickens's mistress 'and he had to admit it'. — Tomalin, "The Remembrance of My Friends 1870—1939," 415.

Katey, who was already 71 when she met the thirteen-year-old Gladys Storey in 1910, gave her young confidant detailed interviews during the 1920s​ towards the publication of a biography, but, given the sensational revelations about her father and Ellen Ternan,​ stipulated​ that the​ book not be published until after​her own death (which occurred on 9 May 1929) and that of her brother, Henry Fielding Dickens (who died four years later, on 21 December 1933). Storey published Dickens and Daughter​ later ​ in 1939. The disturbing news about his mother's liaison with Dickens seems to have shaken Geoffrey to the core. Horrified and aghast at his mother's hidden life, he destroyed her papers, ordered his sister never to talk about their mother to anybody, and died, embittered and childless in 1939, after the truth had come out in Thomas Wright's Life of Charles Dickens (1934) and Gladys Storey's Dickens and Daughter​, fully a decade after Kate Perugini's death. Ironically, Georgina Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law and surrogate mother to the Dickens children after the marital breakup, and Nelly Ternan had been best of friends; perhaps their deaths in April 1917 and April 1914 respectively free up the "Lucifer Box," Kate Perugini, to see that the truth was exposed. Yes, as Tomalin remarks, Charles Dickens "left a trail like meteor" (416) but its influence was not universally benign. According to the author of The Invisible Woman, the possibility that this truth would become general knowledge terrified and blighted both Ellen Ternan and her son, Geoffrey — and probably the Dickens family, as well.

Neither Tomalin nor Douglas-Fairhurst, in​Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist,​sees fit to show us Dickens dancing the hornpipe in his sailor suit, though Ackroyd and Slater apparently found it a charming, perhaps significant, glimpse of the young man at play. And how could Tomalin have resisted the story of Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell (affectionately evoked as Dora in David Copperfield,​then cruelly caricatured as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit), near the end of her life, drunkenly kissing the place on her couch where he'd once sat? Maria’s former nursemaid published the account in 1912; Douglas-Fairhurst retells it, and while Slater didn’t include it in his biography, he’d already used it in an earlier book, Dickens and Women.​Yet only an obsessive would worry too much about which anecdote didn’t make whose cut: an ideal life of Dickens would just stick in everything, and probably no publisher would touch it.​— David Gates, 3​Nov. 2011,​"Sunday Book Review: Being Charles Dickens." The New York Times

Gates's point is that, although no biographer of Dickens could ever include everything about his subject, even in a volume of the dimensions of the Ackroyd volume, the choices of what to exclude imply much about the writer's attitude towards Dickens. And, as far as I know, Claire Tomalin is the only biographer to dwell on the negative long-term effects​ of Dickens's smoking cigars since his teens, so that one must assume either that the other biographers felt that his smoking was immaterial or that Tomalin felt that the lifetime addiction took its toll on Dickens's appearance in middle age; after all, although he died at the age of 58, he looked at least a decade older in his fifties, possessing a haggard visage that bears little relationship to the youthful, handsome face of "Boz." Although all the biographers refer frequently to Dickens's works and have obviously read most if not all of the canon, only Ackroyd and Slater reference, for example, most of the articles in Sketches by Boz (1836, 1839). Both writers adroitly include such literary references without permitting Dickens's texts to overwhelm the narrative of his life.

A measure of the difference between the two biographies is the finalé of each. Claire Tomlin concludes with an epic catalogue of Dickens's many selves, ranging from the republican who hated America for not being the republic of his imagination, the French sympathizer who was also "an English national treasure," "the demonic worker, the tireless walker," the prolific writer and ebullient entertainer, to smoker and maker of punches, topping off the portrait of her image-conscious, radical hero with an anecdote about his furious devotion to his craft:

And, above and beyond every other description, simply the great, hard-working writer, who set nineteenth-century London before our eyes and who noticed and celebrated the small people living on the margins of society . . . . After he had been writing for long hours at Wellington Street, he would sometimes ask his office boy to bring him a bucket of cold water and put his head into it, and his hands. Then he would dry his head with a towel, and go on writing. [416-417]

Perhaps, however, the final word to this article about the multiple perspectives of nineteenth- and twentieth-century biographers about the life and work of Charles Dickens, who died in 1870 but is still very much alive today through his writings, should go to Professor Michael Slater, as great an admirer of The Inimitable as the other biographers but also and a great scholar of the Dickens canon:

His triumph over such early sufferings certainly made him 'the hero of his own life', and, together with Forster's loving and admiring presentation of him, to a considerable extent in Dickens's own words, ensured that for more than sixty years after his death he held a very special place — unique, in fact, — among the great writers of the century, in the hearts and minds of the English-speaking world, apart from most aristocrats and academics, not only as a very great writer indeed but also a great and good man." — Michael Slater, "Charles Dickens's Explanations," 622.

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.

​Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. Boston: Harvard U. P., 2013.

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

Flanders, Judith. "Charles Dickens: A Life​​by Claire Tomalin: review​— A fine biography that tries to make sense of the tormented writer." The Daily Telegraph. 4 October​2011. Accessed 17 March 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8797788/Charles-Dickens-A-Life-by-Claire-Tomalin-review.html

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

Gates, David. "Sunday Book Review: Being Charles Dickens." The New York Times. 3 November 2011. Accessed 17 March 2017. ​http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/books/review/charles-dickens-biographies-review.html

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.

Rutten, Tim. (Book Review) "'Charles Dickens' by Michael Slater." LA Times. 29 December 2009. Accessed​ 6 March 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/dec/23/entertainment/la-et-rutten23-2009dec23

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 2009.

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

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2011.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2012.

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


Created 4 November 2000

Last modified 16 April 2017