Blackness in a great imagination

The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume Ten - Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens
May 28, 1999

I took a deal of black into me ma'am when I was a small child being much neglected and I think it must be, that it works out." Thus wails the housemaid Willing Sophy in Dickens's tale for Christmas 1863 to the vexed Mrs Lirriper, who packs her off to New South Wales where her black face will not be noticed.

Paul Schlicke has masterminded a magnificent new Reader's Companion with entries from over 60 contributors which range from "Queen Victoria" to "Kafka", "Cerberus Club" to "trade unions", "magic lanterns" to "television adaptations", "emigration and colonialism" to "madness, lunacy and insanity". It will be a necessary possession for all Dickensians, both specialists and general readers, and very desirable for anyone interested in 19th-century literature and culture. Its characteristic virtues are well represented by Michael Hollington's entry on "Australia", which not only addresses its familiar uses as the place where Micawber and others make good and the convicted Magwitch comes fatally back from, but also picks up on Willing Sophy to conclude all too shrewdly that "Such anonymity might have attracted Dickens".

Not that there would have been much chance of escaping his own celebrity there or anywhere else in the English-speaking world by 1863. Throughout much of the previous year he had wrestled with the temptation of the fortune to be made from a tour of public readings Down Under, organised by the Melbourne firm that had just brought over the first English cricket team. But "Dickens in Australia" remains an unwritten story, and Willing Sophy was for her author a typically oblique compensation.

The most recent volume of the Pilgrim/British Academy Edition of the Letters covers three years in which black memories of himself as a small child being much neglected seem to have recurred with new force. Dickens's biographer John Forster records his friend's confession that the "never-to-be-forgotten misery of that old time bred a certain shrinking sensitiveness in a certain ill-clad, ill-fed child, that I have found come back in the never-to-be-forgotten misery of this later time". One can imagine this escaping from Dickens at many times in his life, but Forster dates it to June 1862, and this squares with the other hints of misery to be detected in the letters of these years. When his sister-in-law Georgina suffered a serious health scare, Dickens told Wilkie Collins in a letter here published for the first time: "What with this anxiety, and what with my own old load (of which you know something) I am become so restless that I cannot answer for anything." To Forster, again, he spoke of "all this unsettled fluctuating distress in my mind". It must have been something of a relief to realise that the earthquake that shook him out of bed in the early hours of the morning on October 6 1863, in Kent of all places, was for real.

About half of the 900-odd letters in this Pilgrim volume are newly published. The Forster confession is not one of them, being no more of a stranger than the others for which we only have Forster's word, such as the assurance that "You know me better than any other man does, or ever will" (July 1862). But to read these intimacies here is to be all the more startled by their punctuation of the story the volume mainly tells of the writer's more nameable anxieties and excitements: the public readings in London and the provinces and Paris, the weekly routine of editing his journal All the Year Round , the painful preparations for the next big novel ( Our Mutual Friend ), the aggrandisement of Gadshill, the endless requests for advice, patronage, money and photographs, the no less endless anxieties about his own children and relatives. On January 11 1864 he sent a Dr Gill three guineas for the treatment of one of his patients, presumably a relative, mildly wailing that he believed he carried through life "as long and as heavy a train of dependents as ever was borne by one working man".

As he dashes to and fro between Gadshill and the London office and Paris, one gets a vivid sense of the fine calculations this man is forever making, of his money, time, energy, affections, and less avowably, of his capacity for more seismic emotions. Ellen Ternan is of course the absence behind and between these letters, the silent and almost invisible object of desire probably responsible for discreet references to the £50 note he needs "for a special purpose" and "a sick friend concerning whom I am anxious", and for frequent dashes across the Channel.

Australian anonymity was all very well for Willing Sophy, whose marriage to the ship's cook, a "Mulotter", guarantees that she will not be coming back. France was more of an answer to Dickens's own needs, providing both privacy with Ellen and celebrity in Paris. The new Pilgrim volume contains no revelations of Ellen's whereabouts, let alone of the terms of her relations with Dickens, but there are plenty of clues to confirm the story of the French hideaway that Claire Tomalin has got as near to proving as anyone will.

"I cannot regard myself as having a home anywhere," Dickens told Collins, and one can imagine Ellen for her part concurring. What he did find however, in France as in Britain, was the release of performance, of passion displayed and acclaimed and approved. Not only his own, important as this was to him, as witness his reports of the sensational effect his readings had on Parisian audiences: "I wish you could have seen them - firstly, for my effect upon them - secondly, for their effect upon me." This latter is telling for its connection with his responsiveness to other performances in Paris such as Pauline Viardot's in Gluck's Orphée , or the Gounod's Faust which he told Georgina "sounded in my ears so like a mournful echo of things that lie in my own heart".

He had need of good excuses for public emotion. The other silent near-absence behind these letters is his estranged wife Catherine, recipient of a single stony letter on the death of her mother about the arrangements for her burial. Dickens's own mother died barely more than a month later in September 1863, hardly eliciting much more show of emotion. But then there were so many deaths to be mourned in these years - Augustus Egg, Thackeray, John Leech, his own poor son Walter in India. "Think what a great Frozen Deep lay close under those boards we acted on!" he exclaims to Collins, as he thinks of the dead and gone who only a few years before had graced the stage and the audience. "What a great Cemetery one walks through, after forty!" he condoles here in a newly published letter. Beneath the surfaces of these letters one can hear his imagination girding itself for the assault on the next great novel, in which death will undo so many.

It is instructive to read these Letters and the new Companion alongside each other. Graham Storey's annotations to the Letters are adept as ever at coaxing the ghosts back to life, not least through the cross-references that look across the stages of the Pilgrimage and weave it all together. But it is of course Dickens's voice or voices alone that we hear in the letters themselves, marked as they are by many kinds of ellipsis and discretion, whether chosen by Dickens or his correspondents or their subsequent editors. Storey and his collaborators have wrested so much and no more from oblivion; the rest is silence and there is a lot of it.

The Companion is by contrast as voluble a tribute to collective memory as one could wish for. Dickens himself had so much to remember - all those children for one thing. No wonder he almost forgot one of them (Frank) when writing to his Swiss friend, Cerjat, in 1862. The letters of these years are full of paternal worry about getting the sons well settled in work. Two of them will get sent to Australia in the later 1860s, Alfred and Edward ("Plorn"). Poor Walter had been sent to India and now died suddenly on the last day of 1863 as he was about to return on sick leave, just as Frank was on his way out to join the Bengal Mounted Police. Dickens described himself at the Paris Opera as "disfigured with crying". These are years disfigured by loss and dispersal, by the black, as it were, working out.

The Companion is in every way a cheering antidote. It collects and preserves more useful information than any single previous volume, about Dickens's work and life, about the times he lived in and the topics he cared for, about his friends and family and loved ones, about the readers, critics, publishers, adapters and subsequent artists who have shared and shaped his legacy. The entries are generous and fluently written; there are handsome illustrations, some maps, lists of characters, suggestions for further reading both specialised and general; and one of those delightful time-charts to remind you that 1811 was the year that George III went mad and Shelley was expelled from Oxford. The entry headings are intelligently chosen not only to gratify the need for swift information about named individuals such as Angela Burdett Coutts or Benjamin Webster, but also to entice the gliding eye into dwelling on protracted topics such as "crime, crime prevention, and criminals" or "sentiment".

An entry on "memorials to Dickens" reminds us that despite the fact that he deplored and despised them, he has been memorialised more than any other British author - and that his daughter Mamie was one of the first perpetrators. The letters of these years find him expostulating at the "rampant toadyism" behind the proposal for the Albert Memorial, and at the folly and vanity of the Shakespeareans intent on setting up another graven image in some public place. Better to spend the money on scholarships in his name, and send young Englishmen to study abroad, he growled.

These two volumes are in their different ways indispensable in helping us to remember everything Dickens wanted us to remember and some of the things that he did not, like the black which worked out in his own life and writings.

Adrian Poole is reader in English and comparative literature, University of Cambridge.

The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume Ten: 1862-64

Editor - Graham Storey, Margaret Brown and Kathleen Tillotson
ISBN - 0 19 812294 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £65.00
Pages - 511

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