Monday, March 4, 2013

Who Was Charles Dickens?

Last fall, when I was reading A Christmas Carol for my Brit Lit History class, I read a biography of Dickens (on my own time), discussed his life with my class, and wrote a paper about him and his times. And yet, as I was beginning Great Expectations this month, I kept asking myself, Who was Dickens? 

The answer isn't easy. He was a great writer, obviously. And an avid reader. A stellar performer. A powerful personality. A self-made man. An editor. A dog lover. A world traveler. A family man.

Oh, wait...I mean, a family man who separated from his wife of over twenty years, unfairly accused her of being a bad mother, ran off with an actress young enough to be his daughter, and tried to dictate his children's lives.

The Dickens of the early years seems almost incompatible with the Dickens of later life. Although young Dickens was quirky, he was hardworking, rising to his place in the world with no help from his parents. He seemed to be a loving husband and parent, enjoying the company of his sweet wife and young children. He was a pleasant celebrity who liked his public and wrote for their pleasure. But somewhere along the line, it appears that Dickens was disillusioned with life and everyone around him.

Dickens lived in his stories. In them, he created his own world where he could criticize those who had treated him unjustly; he indulged his fantasy of the feminine ideal, the pure, innocent young woman; he told his own tragic story of childhood, even though he didn't feel comfortable telling his own family.

If you know anything about Dickens's life, you probably know that when he was a child, his parents sent him to work in a blacking factory for a few months in order to help out with family expenses. Dickens has been criticized for exaggerating the terrors of this, calling it his "incarceration," while others worked in factories for years. This may be true, but I tend to sympathize with Dickens on this. Dickens had grown up, to that point, with no expectation of ever having to do such work, much less at so young an age. It was only because of his father's needless extravagance and irresponsibility that Dickens was forced to leave his family and the life he knew. The pain and rejection he must have felt, knowing that his parents would sooner send away from home to do labor (Dickens had to live away from home, take care of himself financially, and barely saw his family during this time) than take responsibility for their own actions, would certainly be unforgettable. The experience haunted Dickens for the rest of his life, and judging from the evidence in his novels, he considered it as having molded his character. Dickens seemed to blame this experience for his difficulties relating to his wife and children in later years, as well as his strange personality quirks like his obsession with order and cleanliness.

Dickens's inability to be close to his family led him to write more, and more, and more. The amount of writing Dickens produced in his life is amazing. He was a genius with publicity; he serialized his many novels, which allowed him to adapt them to suit the tastes of his readers. In fact, he was originally going to write an unhappy ending for Great Expectations, but his friend convinced him to change it. Dickens really threw his life into writing and entertaining his public. He gave many public readings of his novels, which were really more like performances in which he acted out different scenes of the novels. His audiences loved it.

Of course, Dickens's writing wasn't all about pleasing people and making money; he sought social change. He depicted the lives of common, working people in his novels in order to show how terrible conditions really were. Although Dickens lamented how slow change occurred, he actually effected plenty of change with his writing alone. After publishing Nicholas Nickleby, which criticized Yorkshire boarding schools, many of these opportunist schools were forced to close.

And yet, with all this greatness, Dickens still sent his children off while still teenagers to "seek their fortunes" in faraway lands, even though they still didn't know what they wanted in life. He still openly wished for his wife to die so he could marry someone else. He still discouraged his children from seeing their own mother. He still refused to allow his daughter to get a separation from her husband, even though he had had a separation from his own spouse. While reading Great Expectations, in a way I find it hard to believe that Dickens was in the middle of treating his wife and children this way even at the time he wrote it. How do I reconcile Dickens the genius with Dickens the man who abandoned and neglected his own family?

Catherine Peters's biography ends with these two sentences: "He had tried to be a good man. Only with those closest to him, perhaps, had he failed." Dickens learned from his experience how the world had to change, but he never learned how he had to change. He looked for fantasy people in his life, but instead found ordinary people. His goodness was real, but could thrive only in the pages of his books.


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