Dickens by Peter Ackroyd - review by Bryan Appleyard

Bryan Appleyard

A Superb Biography Which Redefines the Form and Should Silence Us All



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‘To see Dickens day by day,’ writes Peter Ackroyd, ‘making his way, the incidents of his existence shaping his fiction just as his fiction alters his life, the same pattern of emotion and imagery rising up from letters and novels and conversations, the same momentum and the same desire for control – to see Dickens thus is to turn biography into an agent of true knowledge…’

The market in biographies is crowded. Everybody writes them and ask any publisher for a book idea and he will come up with a biography. The form is debased – as a staple of middle- brow ‘holiday reading’ its conventions have become paralysed by the necessity of not frightening the audience. So lives are wearily gutted for the usual debates about the usual issues: work versus life, childhood versus family, documentary truth versus imaginative identification with the subject and so on. From the giant, painfully-footnoted academic text to the slim, sensitive ‘response’ to a life, almost all founder on the deceptive simplicity of the enterprise, the easy connections that can always be made. Dead men tell no tales, they ask no awkward questions and nobody can be more grateful than the hack biographer.

Dickens, happily detonates this complacency. It does so, first and most obviously, by a daring and utterly successful formal innovation and, secondly, by refusing to be seduced by the hack biographical belief that to ‘know’ somebody is to trap them in some familiar landscape of psychological or historical causality. Charles Dickens emerges from these 1,200 pages known yet profoundly odd, unaccountable and as finally mysterious as you or I; except, of course, that his was the mysteriousness of genius.

The formal innovation is the interpolation of a few, short passages of fiction, interview and meditation. These have a series of complex effects, but, most exactly, they provide a kind of release. So the biography proper at one point moves into an extraordinarily intense analysis of the child in Dickens’ work and life – ‘Insecure. Maltreated. Starved. Frail. Sickly. Oppressed. Guilty. Small. Orphaned’ – which ends with a cry of dismay quoted from one of the novels. On the next few pages we find and account of how it would be for Dickens to step into his own fiction – ‘to bow his head and cross the threshold, into the world which he had created.’ He enters the Marshalsea Prison to meet William Dorrit. ‘You are very like my own father, he thought. Very like.’ The passage has the icy, ambiguous clarity of the smooth complexity of his biographical prose style. It has the effect of severing the analytical mode and allowing us to escape into the fantastic imaginative possibilities that the creation of character implies.

Elsewhere, Ackroyd talks to Dickens about biography, gives an imaginary interview about his book and meets him in a dream on the Underground. A number of Dickens characters meet at Greenwich Fair – Mr Pickwick crying: ‘We cannot die’ – and, in a passage which will almost certainly draw the most embittered charges of self-indulgence – Dickens, Chatterton , Wilde and Eliot, all characters from Ackroyd’s oeuvre, meet in a ‘true conversation between imagined selves’ about life and art. As if deliberately to fuel the anger of lesser writers, Ackroyd even announces the subject of his next biography in this passage.

‘Dickens: … if William Blake were here –
Chatterton: He will be joining us shortly.’

This is perilous stuff. But, as well as being stylistically effective, it also represents a kind of honesty. In his own voice, Ackroyd is being truthful about his responses – such as admitting to a dislike of previous Dickens biographies – and about the imaginative realms into which the biographical process led him. Fiction and biography do mingle in inexplicable and bizarre ways; Ackroyd is not simply telling us this in these passages, he is showing us.

Yet these remain, for all the senseless rage they are bound to inspire, small fragments in this gigantic book. The rest is ‘conventional’ biography in that it pursues the life chronologically, it is precisely and completely researched and it attempts to relate the disparate elements of the life, the age and the work. Ackroyd employs the surface manners of the form as if driven by a certain decorum. The prose is smooth, measured, occasionally rather grand. There is none of the radical impatience with the form itself to be found in, for example, Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s brilliant biography of Mozart, a book inspired primarily by the need to destroy myths. Ackroyd, on the contrary, is working with the myth as a kind of retrospective determinant of the life. He remarks at one point that Dickens is perfectly capable of being as self-consciously Dickensian, as artificially as his public self, as any of the pubs or people who have earned that epithet since. The myth is an essential element.

But the conventional Ackroyd surface is, in part, an illusion. It rests upon a kind of quantum vacuum in which things flicker in and out of existence. The analysis and the narrative constantly move towards their own failure, towards a mystery or an unresolvable contradiction. We may ‘know’ Dickens the man by page 1083, but only by acknowledging that the very word defies further analysis: we only really ‘know’ what we cannot say.

‘I have a kind of complex about discovering everything there is to know,’ says Ackroyd in his phoney interview, ‘but this is probably because I realise just how much cannot be known.’

All of which, to retreat from the abstractions, leaves the issue of what Ackroyd’s Dickens is like. Well he is odd, a quality continually noted by those who met him but largely suppressed by the one-dimensional myth of the man. There is an edginess, a bewildered and frequently callous quality of absorption in his creation. When his wife gave birth to their daughter, Dora, he wrote to her soon afterwards, ‘I have still Dora to kill.’ He meant, of course, the Dora in David Copperfield. ‘As if he could mean anything else,’ comments Ackroyd with the eerie charm of an executioner, swinging us for a sickening moment over the abyss of his subject’s soul.

He surgically pursues the theme of this confusion to the very end, speculating that Dickens’s last words – ‘Yes. On the ground.’ – were an echo of Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times. Ackroyd’s hero could not even die free of his fictions.

His point is that this was a man ‘who even sometimes approaches that living world as if it obeyed the laws of his imagination.’ He seemed frenetically engaged in his life and yet standing back from it. He was said to be the most cheerful man of his age. Forster, his first biographer and friend, said after his death: ‘The duties of life remain while life remains, but for me the joy of it is gone for ever more.’

He played games, indulged in long vigorous walks, clowned, acted and embarked on sudden, impulsive acts of philanthropy. His clothes were those of the gaudy early nineteenth century so that in the later, darker years of the Victorian age he was often sneered at as a dandy, clown or fop. But always the centre of the man is not quite anywhere else either. Of course, it would be easy to say the real Dickens was to be found in the novels, but even this does not quite work. The books emerged as rapidly as serial publications demanded and in a fury of creativity. When interrupted or unconsciously observed at work, it was clear that Dickens was acting out each character in gesture and in voice. Indeed, his public readings attained such a feverous pitch of self-immolation in the text that many said it was his repeated performances of the passage from Oliver Twist, in which Bill Sykes murders Nancy, that finally finished off the increasingly frail author. Dickens, Ackroyd notes, once spotted that the stammer of an acquaintance vanished when the man adopted the voice of another. In him Dickens detected his own need to acquire wholeness by taking on another self.

Ackroyd writes ‘of the sense of emptiness which Dickens carried around with him everywhere.’ The novels were an attempt to fill that emptiness with speech and characters ‘to create order out of disorder, to raise anxieties in order to experience the pleasure of resolving them, to purify the self in woods of fire.’ Such a view of the nation’s second greatest creative artist accords with Borges’s view of the first. In his short story about Shakespeare meeting his maker the playwright confesses the awful truth that, in the midst of all his characters, he himself is a nobody. God confesses in return that He too is everybody and nobody. Perhaps it is a condition of genius.

And yet, in spite of all this strange anonymity, this inconclusiveness, Dickens, whoever he was, is awash with the tides of his age. Ackroyd’s Dickens, like his Eliot, is clairvoyantly attuned to the dynamics of his time. His art is to transform his personal drama into that of the whole Victorian world in its confidence and despair, its benevolence and barbarity. His celebrated childhood experience in the blacking factory becomes the greatest spectacle of innocence and experience that is the bewildered child wandering alone through a corrupted, diseased and violent city. Dickens, even as a celebrated author, was to be seen all over London, talking, watching and, above all, walking, always walking, rapidly and over immense distances as if in movement and exertion he could encompass the whole of what he called ‘the great oven.’

The spectacle of his age and his life overpowered him into art. His immense energy assaulted journalism, the theatre and finally fiction where it spilled out into glorious English that could find no peace with itself. It was the first expression that could find no peace with itself. It was the first expression in prose of the legacy of romanticism. Ackroyd calls the style ‘passionate, comic, direct, plangent, farcical, lachrymose’ and adds with casual brilliance: ‘Prose as a principle of animation.’ Academic English departments should study such superb critical distillations and then abolish themselves.

So the art, like the age, emerges under pressure. The man seemed disoriented by his own genius and then intoxicated by its magical effect on others – most spectacularly in the public readings Ackroyd so carefully reconstructs. Fiction was the release of the man and the era, there they both found a version of themselves truer than that offered by the blurred mirror of reality.

As for the life: well, the outlines are known and the details here filled in with Ackroyd’s usual awesome scholarship and detail. The family – Catherine and the children – emerge as clearly as they can from beneath the shadow of Dickens. They were, it is probably fair to say, broken by his strange grandeur: the children wayward and undetermined, Catherine finally abandoned. But not, says Ackroyd going against the grain of the usual story, in favour of ‘an affair’ with Ellen Ternan. That relationship, he appears convinced, was chaste. It is Catherine’s bitter tears that end this book, an unbearably poignant image of the failure of the merely human ever quite to come to terms with the inhumanity of art. And it is in approaching this most extreme of all the pressures that lie behind this book that Ackroyd’s aesthetic takes on an intensity which can only be described as religious. ‘Charles Dickens had left the world,’ he says over the body. Where had he gone? For, as Pickwick knew, he, along with all his progeny, could not die.

The intellectual significance of Dickens is that it attempts to refine the form of modem biography to the point where it takes on the flexibility and infinite suggestion of art. In doing so Ackroyd overturns most of the glib critical clichés which have both Charles Dickens and the whole of English literature. He shows that the singularity of art evades the drab formulations which are so routinely used to neutralise its power – the Leavises’ grudging tome Dickens the Novelist is included in the bibliography but perhaps only as a dreadful warning. He also links the life, the work and the age in a way which is both convincing and devoid of the old terminology, whether of Hegel or of hacks, that was responsible for all the stilted, unreal character of our ‘great’ men.

If Dickens has failings they are not worth mentioning; if it survives as long as its subject we should not be surprised. There is nothing simple about this book and nothing pretentious. Its aim is that of any biography – to know its subject. But, unlike any other biography I have ever read, it takes on that task in the light of every aspect of the difficulties involved. If Ackroyd has succeeded, this can only be a great book. I think he has.

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