This is a quandary that has puzzled me for a long time. A vast number of artists have displayed such a fierce degree of focus on their art combined with a casual disregard for the well-being of other people that their lives have fallen far short of both their art and any remotely acceptable standard of humane behaviour. Not all have admittedly gone as far as killing someone, in the manner of Ben Jonson and Caravaggio, but the Romantics often set the bar pretty high in terms of the self-absorbed exploitation of others if Byron and Shelley are anything to go by.
From a spiritual point of view such huge discrepancies between a lofty art and a debased life are seen as undesirable and avoidable:
Perfect harmony between religion and science is the sine qua non of the higher life for humanity. When that is achieved, and every child is trained not only in the study of the sciences, and arts, but equally in love to all mankind and in radiant acquiescence to the Will of God as revealed in the progress of evolution and the teachings of the Prophets, then and not till then, shall the Kingdom of God come and His Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven; then and not till then shall the Most Great Peace shed its blessings on the world.
However, in the imperfect world in which we currently live, the discrepancy between the life style held up for emulation in the art and the lived life of the artist is sometimes so wide it almost beggars belief. Dickens was one of the most famous and gifted examples of that gulf. Amongst other things, he advocated compassion, friendship and domestic bliss. Every year at Christmas we can generally choose which version of the glow of The Christmas Carol we can warm our hearts against in the cold season. We can have the musical version with Albert Finney, the old classic with Alastair Sim or a modern update with Patrick Stewart. And if that leaves us dissatisfied there are apparently 37 other screen versions to turn to. And if all else fails we can always read the book.
To be fair to Dickens, as the latest searching, unflinching and immensely readable biography by Claire Tomalin reveals, he did a huge amount of good. Not only did he address the wrongs of his age in what he wrote and moved others to do what they could to right them, he also exerted himself to help those in need from his own time, energy and resources. There is a sense though in which he was tainted by more than a trace of Mrs Jellyby and her family in his behaviour towards his own wife and children.
This family features in Bleak House and Wikipedia summarises its pattern by saying:
The “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm.
Dickens seems to have gone even further and sacrificed his wife as well as many of his children, and their well being, not just to his art and his philanthropy but to his personal need. The description that has come down to us from his daughter, Katey, says it all. She describes the pain he left behind when he exiled his wife, and all those in his family and among his friends who did not side with him, as he pursued his extramarital relationship with Ellen Ternan. The account here comes from notes by Gladys Storey taken down from 1923 until Katey’s death, but not published until 1939, ten years after she died. Claire Tomalin quotes her at length (pages 414-415):
Katey (1839-1929: third child of the marriage) had been old enough to be a clear-eyed observer of the break-up of her parents’ marriage [the open split was in May 1858]. ‘Ah! We were all very wicked not to take [my mother’s] part,’ she said. ‘Harry (1849-1933: eighth child) does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realize the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us. My mother never rebuked me. I never saw her in a temper. We like to think of our great geniuses as great characters – but we can’t.’ Of her mother, she said, ‘My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion- never allowed to say what she felt.’ She praised her mother for her ‘dignified and nobler course of silence’ when her husband was making public statements.” She also said, ‘My father was like a madman when my mother left home, this affair brought out all that was worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”‘
‘I know things about my father’s character that no one else ever knew; he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!’ she said, her buts acknowledging the difficulty of making a definitive moral judgement on him. Miss Storey described a day when she said dramatically, “‘I loved my father better than any man in the world – in a different way of course. . . I loved him for his faults.” Rising from her chair and walking towards the door, she added: “My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man.” And left the room.’ She also reported Katey saying he did not understand women, and suggesting that any marriage he made would have been a failure.
Sue Perkins has also explored this territory in a recent BBC2 programme.
So where exactly does this leave us? How best can we explain such a failure to practise what he preached? An attempt to answer that will have to wait until the next post.