A N Wilson’s new book is an enthralling, sometimes eccentric homage to a novelist whose works he has loved since childhood. He tops and tails this very personal exploration of Dickens’s many selves, secrets and double lives with poignant recollections of his own lonely years at a bleak prep school, where he was beaten by a sadistic master. Reading his way through Dickens was then his comfort, an escape into a rich and cathartic comic universe. When Wilson writes of Dickens’s ‘profound understanding of the inner child’, it is an observation born out of the experiences of a real child.
The book is arranged around seven ‘mysteries’: Dickens’s death (alongside which Wilson discusses his relationship with Nelly Ternan, who was almost certainly with him when he had a fatal stroke aged fifty-eight); his childhood in a household riven with social and financial insecurities; his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, which ended in his humiliating public rejection of her; his charitable activities and his attitude towards charity; the extraordinary (in Wilson’s telling, quite mesmeric) transatlantic success of his public readings; his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood; and finally, the mystery of Dickens himself, a wearer of so many masks that the more we try to prise him out, the more he seems to elude us. Wilson ends the book with a little vignette of Nelly, years after Charles’s death. Secrets beget secrets and Nelly, running a school in Margate with her husband, has had to remake herself, shaving fourteen years off her age (he never guessed). She feels only terrible remorse for the years spent with Dickens, which she kept hidden from everyone except the local vicar.