Sunday, March 17, 2013

Living with Charles Dickens for a week of my life

My erudite hairdresser lent me his box set of BBC productions of Charles Dickens works recently and together with my husband, I enjoyed watching Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit and Tale of Two Cities brought brilliantly to life on the screen.  How Dickens would have enjoyed these renderings!  He so loved to bring his work to life through plays and readings - the cinema and televison would have appealed to him greatly. We had neither of us read the first two stories and forgotten how moving the last one was. Inspired by this, my husband dug out a huge tome from his personal library, a biography by Peter Ackroyd published in 1990. When I say a huge tome, I mean it: 1195 pages long (with notes etc) which took me over a week to read and I'm usually a fast reader.

During this time I lived and breathed Charles Dickens. I couldn't put the tome down - though there are times when this mammoth of a book was filled with far too much repetitive detail plus strange little meanderings from Ackroyd's own psyche, which are hopefully edited out in the abridged version. All the same, through this overwhelming density, detail and some truly beautiful and evocative writing, I entered into the strange and complicated emotions of the great man and even felt a certain understanding and identity with some of his longings and complexes. I began to dream about him and Ackroyd himself confessed he had done the same, in fact the biographer felt as if the spirit of Dickens hovered at his shoulder at times.

Peter Ackroyd analyses with care and insight the manner in which each book was written at key periods of Dickens life. He took a view of the work from a psychological and spiritual understanding.  Seeing life through similiar eyes myself, this appealed to me far more than a dry, scholastic rendering would have done. We followed the way the sub personalities in Dickens own nature and character became woven into his work and Ackroyd pointed out how in each book the repeated themes and feelings of those complexes haunted the great man.  These inner themes and landscapes of our childhood haunt every one of us all our life, taking us along the path of destiny often unwillingly and in directions that may seem at times obscure but they are rooted in early fantasies and fascinations.  A genius like Dickens was able to convert his memories and feelings through his vivid imagination and powers of observation into these brilliant, strange stories - where most of us would simply batten down the hatches on our private fears and neuroses and try to get on with life. Or else go mad. The stories became deeper and darker as Dickens progressed in his life yet he never lost his ironic sense of humour and ability to create odd yet funny characters such as the inimitable Sarah Gamp.  All the same, he was gripped by his 'possessions' of spirit and his own daughter remarked that if he had not died young (aged 58) he would have gone mad.

the mercifully abridged version

Dickens lifeline moved from middle class beginnings to extreme poverty.  His father, though always in work, was feckless with money and never able to manage a household which, like so many Victorian households, became increasingly filled with children. In the end John Dickens was taken to Marshalsea, the debtors' prison and the family scattered. This disgrace affected Dickens deeply. At the tender age of twelve without further schooling, Dickens was found a position at Warren's Blacking, a manufacturer of boot blacking at Hungerford Stairs near the Thames. Thus he managed to keep himself and give a little to support the family. He loathed the work, loathed the fact that people watched the boys at work as they passed the window. He was ever sensitive to people's opinions and had a sense of his own dignity from an early age.  Here he made friends with a young lad called Bob Fagin whose name was later used to portray the evil character in Oliver Twist.  The boy himself was a harmless person yet became twisted into something evil, shaped by the misery and depression of Dickens's life at that period.  Stories of unhappy young boys abound in much of his work.

The area by the Thames, the stinking, polluted sewer that the river had become by this time, impressed itself deeply on his young, sensitive and imaginative mind. He worked in

'a crazy tumbledown old house abutting on the river and over run with rats. Its wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times and the dirt and the decay of the place rise up vividly before me ...'

thus wrote Dickens  - and the image of these dirty, decaying places haunted him all his life. He always had a secret horror and fascination for them (as I think we all have.) But he actually experienced them. This London was the shadowy side of the respectable, decorous middle-class Victorian homes that knew nothing of this world of immense poverty, misery and squalor, disease and crime that was on their very doorsteps. Refined people moved round the city in coaches, spent time in drawing rooms and genteel company. Wisely no doubt they kept away from such downtrodden areas. It took a Dickens, a young lad forced to move around this hidden London, obliged for a while to earn his living and visit his father in prison, to show the world the horrors, the squalor and terrible lives of the poor in what was then the greatest city and Empire in the world..

Catherine Dickens nee Hogarth

I wrote in my last blog about Patrick Leigh Fermor and how he had a Faustian side to his nature. By some synchronicity I was now drawn to Dickens who manifested a similar Faustian nature, though even more so than Fermor. The immortal story of Faust records a man driven all his life by a demonic inner restlessness, almost a madness, a need to travel and be on the move as if fleeing from something within himself that gave him no peace. This lack of peace was often due to a constant search for the ideal woman.  In Faust's case it was the fabled, mythical Helen of Troy. Thus he made a pact with the Devil, bartered the peace of his soul in order to gain this ideal woman without understanding that her image was something within his own psyche and thus could never be truly found in a real person. In so doing, he abandoned the real, human woman who  genuinely loved him, leaving her in despair.

Just so with Dickens. He married Catherine Hogarth when still a very young man. He seemed then to long for some sort of mother figure and she appears to have been an earthy, cheerful enough woman, slow, pretty and quiet, devoted to him, a ballast to his more flamboyant nature. However, after their marriage, he seemed to care more for her sister Mary who had been about fourteen at the time of their union. She came later to join them and help a sickly Catherine with her first child. Mary became his constant companion, she whose opinion he sought and company he enjoyed. Sadly however, she died quite suddenly at the age of seventeen from heart failure, died in Dickens's arms. His grief knew no bounds. He was prostrated by the most powerful sense of loss he was ever to experience, a loss that according to Ackroyd was almost hysteria. Mary seems to have since become the template for all the beautiful, sweet, gentle virginal girls in his stories and they crop up in almost every tale in some guise or another. Dutiful tender daughters, loving friends, sisters, children or young women who die young. After Mary's loss, Georgina, another sister moved in and she also remained in the Dickens's household to help her sister as the children kept coming.  She also was more regarded by her brother-in-law than poor slow, passive, depressed Catherine.

Catherine put on weight after all the pregnancies (they had eight children in all) and suffered badly from post natal depression. Dickens was always kind and dutiful to her but he was patently unhappy and unsatisifed in hsi marriage. He was constantly attempting to escape the home, constantly yearning for some unattainable love. This may well hark back to a loss of innocent childhood, a sense of betrayal by his mother and sister who he felt had abandoned him. During his forties, (the dear old mid life crisis which affect so many of us in this angst ridden way)  he put his wife away after 22 years of marriage and refused to see her or speak to her after this and wrote villifying letters about her in order to convince the world he had good reason to do so.  Most of his children sided and chose to remain with their infinitely more interesting, richer and famous father and mainly ignored their banished mother.  They were from thenceforward  looked after by their aunt Georgina instead. Poor Catherine kept all his more loving letters of older times, read all his books, went to all his plays, often sobbing so bitterly that she had to be taken home.  She remained loving till she died.

Ellen Ternan
Meanwhile Dickens met a young actress of eighteen called Ellen Ternan for whom he conceived a passionate attraction that obsessed him till he died.  He explores this in Our Mutual Friend and we see just how madly this love  gripped him through the character of Bradley Headstone, who pursues the young, angelic and beautiful Lizzie Hexam.   Dickens adored this young woman and took great care of her.  Not unsuprisingly, rumours abounded over this strange relationship.  Modern opinion is cynical and in turn obessed about sex.  It is hard to conceive that this may have been platonic, a love of something ideal and out of reach.  This is the view that Ackroyd puts forward and I am inclined to agree that it is possible.  Astonishing as it may seem to modern minds, there are relationships of this kind between certain types of men and women.  And Dickens was no ordinary man, he was  very strange, odd, different . . . a sign of the genius at the best of times.  They live life to a different drumbeat to the common man. Would his daughters have accepted Ellen and remained friends with her after his death if they suspected their father was having relations with her? He wanted his love to remain pure, his beloved to be holy in his eyes like Dante's Beatrice.  But like Faust, he rejected the flesh and blood woman who was his devoted wife.  He was, still haunted by the lost virginal sweeterness of his Mary and found her in Ellen.

Ellen later in life
But despite having found the love of his life, Dickens was deeply depressed at the peculiarly unsatisfying nature of the relationship. He could not live with the girl, soicety forbade it, he was still married and he didn't wish to ruin the young girl's reputation. It had to be kept secret and hidden. So he was never truly happy. So, like Faust, he sold his soul and remained constantly driven by some mad restlessness and inner anxiety that forced him to work even while he was ill. He had prodigious energies and continued with the readings around the country and even famously visited America and did a long and exhausting reading tour there. He had tremendous dramatic qualities and loved the stage as much as writing. Apparently he could literally mesmerise an audience and loved the power he had to move them with his readings in which he portrayed his characters with different voices, gestures and actions of his fluid face and body. Grown men were reduced to tears, women shrieked and sobbed. He loved their adoration, their applause. It energised his spirit but destroyed his body in the end. Yet he carried on with his writing, commencing the DrThe Mystery of Edwin Drood just before his death, a dark murder story that remained unfinished.

At the end of this week of reading, I went to a concert given by the Malvern Festival Chorus who sang the lyrical Brahm's Requiem. On my return, I finished the last few pages of Ackroyd's book with the moving account of Dickens's last days on this earth. That seemed a fitting thing. Afterwards, I felt such grief as if I knew him so well that there was a strong sense of mourning; it was as if he had only just passed away.

'At five to six his breathing suddenly diminished and he began to sob. Fifteen minutes later he heaved a deep sigh, a tear rose to his right eye and trickled down his cheek. He was dead. Charles Dickens had left the world.'

Like Faust, he drove himself to his death through the fiery obssessions and yearnings and restlessness of his nature.

Charles Dickens was indeed the spirit of his Age, the word 'Dickensian' conjuring up a definite image as much as 'Victorian' does. Though he himself actually belonged to an earlier, freer, rougher Georgian age in spirit . . . for we all belong to the time of our youthful beginnings . . . and it is that age which haunts his works as he relived his childhood, his complexities and longings for a perfect world. He wanted a Utopian perfect  world - yet decoured by a fascination that drove him to portray so vividly the depths that underpin the brightest scenes within it. There will it seems always be a Heaven and Hell.


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

What a wonderful article! Thank you for this. I've book-marked it. I'm enamored of the Victorian Era (have a blog about it, in fact, Victorian Scribbles), and I've only read three of his novels, but he has always sounded like such a complex person. I enjoyed getting to know so much more about him.

Loretta Proctor said...

Thnaks so much, Elizabeth! I will take a look at Victorian Scribbles...sounds mostinteresting!Like you I find it a fascinating period of history ...up to the 1960's really. Like Dickens I love my own era best. By the way, if you like Victorian take a peek at The Crimson Bed. It may appeal to you.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks for mentioning The Crimson Bed. I visited Amazon and bought the kindle version. Can't wait to read it!

Loretta Proctor said...

Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! Many thanks for that. Hope you like my new one on Elgar too.

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