Archive for September 14th, 2020

In the previous post, after describing my encounters as a young man with death and Dickens, I paused just as I had began to explore some of the ideas in A N Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens.

Little Dorrit in a way laid the foundations for the upward trajectory I mentioned last time. Wilson wrote:[1] ‘Given the way that Dickens wrote his novels, burrowing deeper and deeper into his psychological history, and reworking experience as his fiction became ever richer and darker, you can see that the writing of Little Dorrit in 1857 probably had as devastating effect on his marriage as the meeting with Nelly Ternan. Creatively speaking, his relationship with his parents was of far greater moment than that with his wife, mistress or children. In Little Dorrit he had re-entered the shades of the prison house,’ by which he meant the period when Dickens’ father was incarcerated in the debtors’ prison known as the Marshalsea. Wilson concludes, ‘For now, in the pursuit of his art, the reworking and rebuilding of experience in fictive form, nothing was going to be spared.’

Earlier[2] Wilson praised Little Dorrit stating ‘The novel tells us that one of these days the whole edifice – of respectability, and family structure, and capitalism – is going to come tumbling down. Dickens achieved few more brilliant things than Little Dorrit.’

Wilson’s unpacking of the details of what drove Dickens in this intense direction needs to be read in its entirety. I shall simply share a few compelling insights.

A fundamental aspect of his early experience was being sent to the blacking factory by his mother at the age of twelve, though[3] Dickens had ’felt unwanted long before she insisted upon him going to work’ there. This darkened his relationship with his wife:[4] ‘Kate Dickens was actually his wife, but having borne ten children, lost her looks and became a fat wretch of misery worn down by his bullying; she had taken the place, in his imaginative life, of the mother he could not forgive for her treatment of him in childhood.’ Wilson feels he ‘reached the depths of the truth’ about his ‘mother-hate’ in Little Dorrit. 

Wilson flags up a key thesis[5] when he writes, ‘We are now able to see what Dickens himself was probably unable to see: that his flawed relationship with his mother is the defining feature, of the man and of his art.’

He was split in two, with a good and an evil self. Though he advocated kindness and did much philanthropic work, he could also be cruelly controlling. The mystery that Wilson pinpoints[6] concerns how this ‘apostle of kindliness’ could have been ’so furiously unkind… to the woman who had borne his children.’

Concerning his frenetic tours giving readings from his novels, A N Wilson quotes Edmund Wilson[7] who ‘thought Dickens was releasing, without entirely controlling, dark forces inside him and his genius that were only implicit on the page…’ Later[8] A N Wilson likens Dickens’ ‘divided self’ to that of ‘a detective [who] also imagined himself as the hunted criminal.’

One of the most insightful comments Wilson makes[9] relates to David Copperfield, as a quasi-autobiographical novel written after layers of disguising masks had been stripped away as a result of his affair with Nelly Ternan. He was faced in life with ‘the raw truth about his own ruthlessness, the impurity of his family hatreds, the psycho-bonds that drove his need for status and money, and the murky origins of his money.’ Wilson added at the end of that paragraph ‘had Dickens fully known what he was doing [in the novel], he could not have done it.’

He concludes[10] that while the divided self is extremely damaging it is ‘also a source of creativity.’

To fully appreciate the richness of his analysis, of which this has been the barest skeleton, you need to read the book. I don’t think you will be disappointed. As for me I’m dithering over whether to risk one more immersion in the fascinating darkness of the later novels, which for me are so closely associated with death and an armchair.


[1]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 140.
[2]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – pages 32-33.
[3]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 94.
[4]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens  – page 31.
[5]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 92.
[6]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 104.
[7]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 203.
[8]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 232.
[9]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 248.
[10]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 254.

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