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John Sutherland


Charles Dickens: A Life
By Claire Tomalin (Viking 576pp 30)

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 372pp 20)
Dickens with his daughters Mamie and Katey

There have been around ninety full-length lives of Dickens. As the 2012 bicentennial approaches the discriminating purchaser will be able to choose between three current frontrunners. Michael Slater's 2009 biography, still going strong in paperback, is one. A 'radically revised' reissue of Peter Ackroyd's 1990 biography is another. And, coming up fast on the outside track, we have Claire Tomalin.

Each brings something distinctive to the task. Slater's book is the distillation of fifty years' rigorous scholarship. Ackroyd brings a novelist's privileged insight to his subject. And Tomalin? She is a biographical big-game hunter, having already bagged Austen, Hardy, Pepys, Wollstonecraft and Mansfield. The shelf of prizes she has won testifies to her ability not just to write 'lives' but to bring the authors she writes about to life.

Most nineteenth-century novelists hated the idea of too much being known about them. As Henry James put it: 'My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter' - a species of literary vermin anatomised in The Aspern Papers. James frustrated the publishing rascals with that handiest of weapons, the safety match. In the conflagration he started in his garden many things which prurient posterity yearns to know (what was that 'obscure hurt' in the groin area?) went up in smoke. Dickens, as his personal life went haywire at the end of the 1850s, lit a similar bonfire. It was so massive that his children roasted chestnuts in the embers. All that was left for the biographers was cold ashes. No chestnuts for them. Dickens went a step further in his campaign against the postmortem exploiter. At the astonishingly premature age of thirty-seven he appointed his bosom friend, John Forster, as his biographer. It was to Forster that he entrusted the unpublished 'autobiographical fragment' - that short sketch of his childhood which, like a plutonium pellet, has shaped every biography since.

The fragment relates two traumatic events: his father's incarceration in the Marshalsea debtors' prison; and his own 'agony of soul' at being sent for a few months to work in a boot-blacking factory by the Thames to help out with the family finances.

Why did Dickens confide these life-changingly shameful events to Forster alone? The motive was not, one may hazard, confession but control. Both Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst draw attention to a jubilant remark he made to his wife after reading one of his Christmas stories to a group of friends: 'If you had seen [William] Macready last night undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa as I read - you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.' As editor of the tuppenny newspapers Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens customarily referred to himself as 'the conductor'. Every biographer he's ever had, however ingenious, has been subject to that posthumous Dickensian baton.

Why, then, should one buy Tomalin's book rather than (or in addition to) Slater's or Ackroyd's? A good reason is her shrewdness. Tomalin, for example, is surely right in claiming that 'Nelly' Ternan, the young woman for whom Dickens left the wife who had borne him ten children, was his mistress, in the full sense of the word. Ackroyd, by contrast, finds consummated sex between them 'almost inconceivable'. Slater - in the absence of clinching evidence - will not speculate. Tomalin's speculations, as she weighs them up, have the force of commonsensical deduction. There was indeed, she presumes, consummation - and quite likely conception, in the form of a stillborn child. The case was made more fully in her 1990 biography of Ternan, The Invisible Woman.

Tomalin claims that 'it is not impossible to believe' that a ferociously sexual man like Dickens used prostitutes. 'Mrs Dickens is in a very uninteresting condition,' he would complain to friends. What then did he do in her virtually continual pregnancy during the years of their marital cohabitation? If he did use prostitutes, Tomalin goes on to suggest, it would have helped in his wholly admirable work with girls at risk at Urania Cottage, the reformatory he set up with Angela Burdett-Coutts (usefully the wealthiest woman in England - but not particularly knowledgeable about her fallen sisters).

It is the forensic acuteness of Tomalin's account that is her peculiar strength. Dickens always needed a harem of women ('petticoats', as he called them) around him in the many homes he set up. When he married, he brought his young sister-in-law Mary Hogarth into his house. When she collapsed and suddenly died he held her in his arms as she passed away and took from her still-warm finger a ring which he wore on his own hand until he died - a symbolic marriage of longer duration than that solemnised in church with her elder sister.

Mary's death was the greatest tragedy of his adult life - so traumatic that, for the only time, he stopped writing. But as Tomalin notes: 'It is curious that during the fourteen hours between her collapse and death no doctor was able to make any diagnosis, or to provide or even suggest any form of care or treatment beyond allowing Dickens to administer brandy and hold the sick girl in his arms.'

She is similarly acute - and controversial - on Dickens's whereabouts when he himself died, puncturing the idyllic hearthside scene pictured by Forster and every biographer since. She plausibly suggests that he may well have suffered his fatal stroke in Nelly's house, necessitating (for the preservation of his legend) a cover-up.

At every point of Dickens's life Tomalin can give the all-too-familiar facts a twist that brings into view a hitherto unregarded facet. An avowed admirer of his greatness, she is refreshingly unforgiving about his 'dark side', giving full vent to distaste for his chronic meanness to family members (particularly males) and his wrenching of his sons' careers into courses that flattered his amour proper and ruined them. Above all, his treatment of his wife, Catherine, is something from which, as Tomalin says, one would like to avert one's eyes. She doesn't.

Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens ponders the question of how this phenomenal man happened. He identifies a series of self-defining moments in the process. Primal is the Warren's blacking factory episode. It was not 'merely one step in his passage through life. It was the fixed centre.' This is a standard opening move in Dickens biography (Christopher Hibbert's The Making of Charles Dickens takes the same starting point). But what makes Douglas-Fairhurst's study unusual is his sleuthing discovery of traces of 'black' and 'blacking' streaking the whole corpus of Dickens's fiction: the wound suppurates everywhere. I've read Nickleby often enough, but I never noticed the 'sickly bedridden hump-backed boy ... watching the games he is denied the power to share in', whose only pleasure is some 'hyacinths ... blossoming in old blacking-bottles'. Ditto Barnaby Rudge, and the 'Warren'. Douglas-Fairhurst has all of Dickens, it seems, at his fingertips and his ear is cocked for every significant echo.

Much of his book is taken up with a diligent trawl through all the pre-Pickwick journalism, which, to be honest, even Dickensians are sometimes shaky on. For Douglas-Fairhurst it is not apprentice work, but the laboratory in which young Dickens was methodically 'inventing' Boz - his other, public, self. The difference between Tomalin's broad brush and Douglas-Fairhurst's microscopy can be illustrated by one example. When Dickens was recruited by Chapman and Hall to work on The Pickwick Papers it was to provide letterpress to accompany the well-known illustrator Robert Seymour's 'Nimrod' (ie sporting) illustrations. After a month or so of collaboration, Seymour killed himself with a rifle (a sportsman's firearm).

The suicide freed Dickens to take over the project, which he did triumphantly. Tomalin gives the event a mere sentence, noting only that Seymour 'suffering from depression shot himself'. It was sad but, for the young collaborator, the luckiest of breaks. Douglas-Fairhurst gives it many pages, analysing the stylistic assault Dickens had launched on Seymour's inert conceptions (memorialised by the serial wrapper of Mr Pickwick, lazily angling). He concludes: 'it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Dickens was partially responsible, even if he was not to blame'. It was not luck but Dickens's 'Power', emerging in an early manifestation.

What is extraordinarily fresh in Becoming Dickens is Douglas-Fairhurst's ability to support such arguments by sensitive explication de texte. Put another way, Claire Tomalin sees Dickens the man with brilliant clear-sightedness; Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reads Dickens the author with brilliantly acuity. If these two books are harbingers of what is to come in the bicentennial year, 2012 will be a memorial fully worthy of the great Boz.

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John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL. His Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives will be published by Profile this month.