He was the best of men, he was the worst of men …
Charles Dickens, who was born on 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth, was undeniably a genius. He remains one of the best know, and justifiably most lauded, writers in the English language. One of his greatest gifts was that of characterization. He not only created fictional people who were “real” to the reader, he managed to make them believable regardless of how far he stretched them into parody. Moreover, he gave them names that stick to the human forebrain like glue, becoming shorthand descriptors of personalities and human foibles, as well as symbols of great virtue hiding among the unsung.
The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger, Fagin, Bill Sikes, Pip, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay, David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, Abel Magwitch, Daniel Quilp, Samuel Pickwick, Wackford Squeers, and Uriah Heep are so well known as to be part and parcel of British culture, and in some cases have passed into ordinary language: a scrooge, for example, is a miser.
The only writer that can come close to him in this miraculous juxtaposition of name and character is JK Rowling. If you have read her books (and you SHOULD) then you know when someone is acting like a Slytherin, or reminds you of a Dolores Umbridge, and you know why some members of the resistance movement against Donald Trump refer to themselves as Dumbledore’s Army.
Dickens also dug deep into the lives of the destitute and working poor, brining into the light things that comfortable middle class and the oblivious upper class would have preferred to kept buried.
He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society. In a New York address, he expressed his belief that “Virtue shows quite as well in rags and patches as she does in purple and fine linen”. Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist (1839), shocked readers with its images of poverty and crime: it challenged middle class polemics about criminals, making impossible any pretence to ignorance about what poverty entailed.
Some critics view his works as too sentimental, too outright smaltzy, to be truly great … but those critics are missing the deeper point. II is damn near impossible to make people give even a microscopic poo about the disenfranchised and dispossessed from a RATIONAL standpoint. The average person can either fall back on the just world fallacy or find some other mental justification to indulge in victim blaming or explain why other people’s problems are personally irrelevant. However, if you catch people by the emotions, by the HEART, then you have engaged their empathy and from that will come a sympathetic mercy.
So, yes, Charles Dickens was a genius and a magnificent humanitarian.
He was also a horrible husband and lousy dad.
Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, one of the daughters of his friend George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle, on 2 April 1836. They had 10 children, almost one every year, and Dickens decided that this occurrence was somehow only Catherine’s fault, and he resented the fact she felt overwhelmed by so many offspring in such a short time period. Plus, Dickens was growing ever more famous and his head swelled up like a pricked finger. His wife just wasn’t good enough anymore; she wasn’t a fitting companion for someone as awesome as he was. He needed someone smarter, sharper … and of course, younger and hotter. So at the age of 45 Dickens became a cliché and fell in love with an 18 year old actress named Ellen Ternan. After the affair was discovered, he formally separated from his wife.
He was a complete twerp about the separation, probably because he felt guilty and thus resentful. Since men at the time had utter control over the children, who were their “property” and over whom the mother had NO rights, Dickens took 8 of the 9 surviving kids with him when he left. His wife’s maiden sister, Georgiana, was kept with them to do the actually parenting. The oldest son, who was 21 and old enough to be beyond his father’s control, stayed to live with his mother. The other nine kids were discouraged from visiting the woman who gave birth to them. They were to be loyal to their father, you see.
Is there anything as hateful as a person who knows he has done something shitty to another person, but tries to escape the guilt/blame by making everything the fault of the person he sinned against? Once he has established the mental framework of blame, NOTHING is too horrible to be done to that person.
Just like his marriage had started off well and ended in a nightmare, so did Charles Dickens’s parenting. He liked them well enough as babies, but then became a critical, over-bearing, and eviscerated them physiologically. When they disappointed their father, which they could not help but do, he actively wished them dead. Seven of the adult children seem to have been burdened with what we would now diagnose as forms of mental illness – depression and/or OCD by the look of it. The most successful child, Henry Dickens, was described by his oldest sister as the “only one who seemed to me to be really quite sane”.
In spite of his enormous personal faults, Dickens remains one of my favorite writers – in part because of the humanitarian impulses he showed to everyone but his wife and children. Therefore, I could not miss the opportunity to include him in Mansfield Parsonage. Fanny Price is in Portsmouth on 7 February 1813, and the Price’s neighbors just happen to be the Dickens family and they just happen to be celebrating the first birthday of their child Charles.
Of such things is authorial happiness made.