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Catherine Peters

Sparkler of Albion

Dickens and his characters, by J R Brown (1889)

The great Bicentennial Dickens Jubilee Olympics are upon us. On television, radio, in the theatre, on film and even in the bookshops, there is no escape from garbled versions of the work and accounts of the man. How many people will actually read the novels in 2012 is another matter, but some of the books under review might encourage them to engage with a more authentic Dickens. The one-volume The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 458pp 20) is a good place to start. While Simon Callow's claim that 'if not a single novel or story of Dickens were to survive, his letters alone would constitute one of the glories of English literature' may be an exaggeration, they do give a vivid impression of this extraordinary and multifaceted man. Jenny Hartley has risen splendidly to the difficult challenge of making a representative choice from the twelve-volume Pilgrim Collected Letters. An affordable selection of this quality has long been needed, and Dickens lovers will all be grateful to Hartley for her skill and judgement.

Another essential volume for the reader of Dickens is the new 'Anniversary Edition' of The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 675pp 25), the first for a decade. It has a wonderfully informative index, always a good indication of a really well-conceived companion. As well as the obvious themes and subjects, there are entries on all the literary and theatrical figures of the age who had any connection with Dickens, some of them too obscure to figure in other guides to Victorian literature. I wish OUP would also reissue an equally treasured volume, The Dickens Index (Oxford University Press, 1988), which, as well as giving biographical information, is the most complete guide to the details of Dickens's fiction. The Oxford Companion has lengthy and informative entries on each of the novels, but the Index is a treasure chest of unexpected facts. If you want to know who Pedlar and Pool were, or where Jerry Cruncher lived, The Dickens Index is the only place to look. I am convinced it would still sell well, in print or online.

OUP have also unearthed Dickens's anonymously published Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1838) and Sketches of Young Couples (1840), sequels to Sketches of Young Ladies by the forgotten Edward Caswall, also included in the same volume (Oxford University Press 221pp 9.99). Where Caswall generalises and flattens, Dickens individualises, starting to turn sketch into story, 'character' into person, by adding dialogue and embryonic storylines. It is surprising that his cover was not blown, for the satiric, pathetic and humorous early Dickens is clearly seen in 'The Bashful Young Gentleman' and his mishaps at the dinner-table, or 'The Theatrical Young Gentleman' and his claimed inside knowledge. There are hints that 'The Plausible Couple' were later developed into the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.

Hilary Macaskill's Charles Dickens at Home (Frances Lincoln 144pp 25) is a lavishly illustrated piece of heritage book-making that describes the various places Dickens lived and visited. It provides a good guide for the 'Dickens Trail' tourist, giving information about the settings of the novels - though little on the novels themselves - and an outline of Dickens's life. This is soft-focus Dickens, with the difficult and upsetting elements smoothed over. Catherine Dickens 'left the matrimonial home', with no suggestion that she was forced out, and a photograph of Ellen Ternan is captioned 'a close companion'. There is little description of the places where Ternan lived and Dickens stayed under various aliases. The photographs are mostly modern, and illustrations to the novels are often from sentimental Edwardian editions rather than those of Phiz and Cruikshank.

More restricted in scope, but all the better for its narrower emphasis is Dickens's London by Peter Clark (Haus 130pp 9.99). This is a small, delightful book, handsomely produced and shaped to fit an overcoat pocket, describing walks around parts of London associated with Dickens's life and writings. Five walks in central London are described in detail, with well chosen black-and-white photographs and maps which mark the Dickens associations en route. Six peripheral areas are covered more briefly. A neat device is the use of bold type for quotations from Dickens. The book is dedicated to Clark's grandson, and it would be fun to do these walks with a teenager reading Dickens for the first time.

Finally two widely contrasting books, both important additions to our understanding of Dickens. The first is a rough nugget of important research, the second a sparkling gem of biography. In Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory (Oxford-Stockley Publications 320pp 24.95) Michael Allen, author of Charles Dickens' Childhood (1988, revised 2012), has investigated a crucial period of Dickens's early life. His book is not easy reading, but the information in it will be taken seriously by Dickens scholars. Allen has unearthed, patiently worked through and transcribed a mass of legal material from the National Archives, much of it handwritten and unpunctuated, documenting actions for breach of copyright and 'passing off' between different branches of the Warren family during and after the time Dickens worked in one of the Warren blacking factories. He has also transcribed criminal court proceedings for embezzlement and receiving stolen goods, and delved into the official records to discover the links between the Lamerte family and their relations by marriage, the Woodds and the Worms - names so Dickensian they seem scarcely credible. During Dickens's time at the blacking factory the owner was actually William Woodd rather than anyone called Warren. All were Jewish, and some were criminal: Henry Worms was sent to the hulks and then transported, leaving behind a wife and eight children. Allen makes a good case for considering him to have inspired both Fagin and Magwitch. These documents are printed in full and make up about half the book with other archive material.

Allen's new information also casts doubt on aspects of Dickens's account of his time in the blacking factory, used by Forster and every subsequent biographer. According to this account, his aunt's stepson, James Lamerte, who lodged with the Dickens family and first encouraged his interest in the theatre, found a job for the twelve-year-old in Warren's Blacking Factory at 30 Hungerford Stairs. The boy worked - he could not remember for exactly how long - in the rat-infested, ruinous building until the business moved to Chandos Street off the Strand. There he worked with other boys in the large window, attracting the notice of crowds of passers-by, which increased Dickens's sense of humiliation and despair. In August 1824 his father quarrelled with James Lamerte, and his son left the blacking factory.

Allen has found no record of anyone called James Lamerte in any branch of the family. The only person who fits the profile is George Lamerte, born in 1802, whom Dickens names as the general manager at Hungerford Stairs and Chandos Street when he was there. Why Dickens remembered (or chose to present) one person as two is an intriguing psychological enigma. The business moved to Chandos Street early in 1824, which also brings into question how long - if at all - Dickens was employed at Hungerford Stairs. Allen has a tentative solution to this, which I do not find entirely credible. I hope there is more to discover; Michael Allen is the person to do it.

Simon Callow does not claim to be a Dickens scholar, but he is steeped in Dickens's writing, and he knows Dickens inside out. He has spent years performing in Dickens adaptations, recreating Dickens's readings, and as much as anyone can, becoming Dickens. His Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World (HarperPress 220pp 16.99) is a comprehensive biography as enthralling as one of his own performances. Among its many merits is Callow's entertaining and engaging account of Dickens's essentially theatrical view of the world, which Dickens himself was very well aware of. He shows why Dickens's histrionic streak runs away with his pen at times, makes sense of the contradictions that sometimes threaten to destroy the fiction, and answers very convincingly the question why Dickens, with his passion for the theatre, never wrote a good play.

All the major biographers, from Forster to Tomalin, have their own viewpoints and insights which add to our understanding of Dickens. But it was Callow's book that reminded me of Byron's comment, in a letter to Douglas Kinnaird, on his masterpiece Don Juan, to 'confess - you dog ... it is the sublime of that there sort of writing ... is it not life, is it not the thing?' Callow gives us the that there of Dickens, making him as exciting, alarming, and alternately loveable and appalling as he was to his friends; the self-styled 'Sparkler of Albion' springs to life before our eyes. It is a great achievement.


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Catherine Peters's Charles Dickens was reissued by the History Press in 2009.


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Royal Literary Fund