The most well-known biography of Dickens is John Forster’s. Forster was a close friend of Dickens during most of Dickens’ adult life. Forster’s biography is known for being lively and intimate. Such a book can never be rendered obsolete by later scholarship. If only it were written in a simpler, clearer style!
Like David Copperfield, Dickens learned shorthand as a teenager. (Doubtless he taught himself, as Thoreau taught himself surveying.) Starting at age 17, Dickens worked as a court reporter for two years, then as a Parliamentary reporter for four years. His job was to take down in shorthand Parliamentary debates, and political speeches delivered around England, then transcribe the shorthand, then get his pages to the newspaper’s office in time for the deadline.
Dickens often worked all night, sometimes by candlelight in a coach that was galloping along at 15 miles an hour. Dickens says that he once charged his newspaper for damage to his coat “from the drippings of a blazing wax candle, in writing through the smallest hours of the night in a swift-flying carriage-and-pair.” Not infrequently, the coach broke down, turned over, or got stuck in a ditch.
This was around 1832, just before the advent of railroads. Forster says, “[Dickens] saw the last of the old coaching-days, and of the old inns that were a part of them.” Dickens preserved this world in his novels. (The name “Pickwick” comes from the Pickwick family of Bath — Eleazer Pickwick ran a coaching business, and his nephew, Moses Pickwick, ran the adjacent inn.)
Dickens later said, “To the wholesome training of severe newspaper work, when I was a very young man, I constantly refer my first successes.” For the young Dickens, reporting meant stimulation, travel, experience.
When Forster meets Dickens, Forster is working for a newspaper, Dickens is a 19-year-old reporter for that newspaper. Forster and his colleagues have a big problem: the reporters have gone on strike. The strikers have chosen Dickens as their leader. Forster says,
|I well remember noticing at this dread time, on the staircase of the magnificent mansion we were lodged in, a young man of my own age, whose keen animation of look would have arrested attention anywhere, and whose name, upon inquiry, I then for the first time heard. It was coupled with the fact, which gave it interest even then, that “young Dickens” had been spokesman for the recalcitrant reporters, and conducted their case triumphantly.|
|There was that in the face as I first recollect it which no time could change, and which remained implanted on it unalterably to the last. This was the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook on each several feature, that seemed to tell so little of a student or writer of books, and so much of a man of action and business in the world. Light and motion flashed from every part of it.... “What a face is his to meet in a drawing-room!” wrote Leigh Hunt to me, the morning after I made them known to each other. “It has the life and soul in it of fifty human beings.” In such sayings are expressed not alone the restless and resistless vivacity and force of which I have spoken, but that also which lay beneath them of steadiness and hard endurance. [Jane Carlyle said of Dickens’ face] “It was as if made of steel.”|
As Chesterton put it, “in the matter of concentrated toil and clear purpose and unconquerable worldly courage — [Dickens] was like a straight sword.”
Forster describes the start of Dickens’ literary career. At age 21, Dickens wrote a piece called “Mr. Minns and his Cousin,” which was later published in Sketches by Boz. He dropped this piece “stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box in a dark office up a dark court in Fleet Street.” The piece appeared in the Old Monthly Magazine, and Dickens was on his way.
Forster’s first visit to Dickens took place shortly after the death of Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary, who lived with Dickens and his wife. “His heart opened itself to mine,” Forster wrote. “I left him as much his friend, and as entirely in his confidence, as if I had known him for years.”
A few weeks later, Dickens wrote to Forster, “I look back with unmingled pleasure to every link which each ensuing week has added to the chain of our attachment. It shall go hard, I hope, ere anything but Death impairs the toughness of a bond now so firmly riveted.” Forster says, “It remained unweakened till death came,” and death didn’t come for almost 35 years.
Writers value feedback, and feedback is especially valuable prior to publication. Forster read all of Dickens’ writings prior to publication, or listened as Dickens read them aloud. Forster provided valuable feedback to Dickens.
Every year, Forster dined with Dickens and his wife on their wedding anniversary, which was also Forster’s birthday. They dined at the Star and Garter in Richmond. “It was a part of his love of regularity and order, as well as of his kindliness of nature, to place such friendly meetings as these under rules of habit and continuance.” They kept up this tradition for twenty years, except when Dickens and his wife were abroad. Perhaps this tradition lapsed as a result of the growing estrangement between Dickens and his wife.
Forster says that, in a circle of friends, there was nothing pretentious about Dickens:
|Displays of conversational or other personal predominance, were no part of the influence he exerted over friends. To them he was only the pleasantest of companions, with whom they forgot that he had ever written anything.... His talk was unaffected and natural, never bookish in the smallest degree. He was quite up to the average of well-read men, but as there was no ostentation of it in his writing, so neither was there in his conversation. This was so attractive because so keenly observant, and lighted up with so many touches of humorous fancy.|
Like many intellectuals, Dickens found relief from mental work in physical exercise — long rides or walks into the country, stopping for lunch at an inn. He usually invited Forster:
|“What a brilliant morning for a country walk!” [Dickens] would write, with not another word in his dispatch. Or, “Is it possible that you can’t, oughtn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t, won’t be tempted, this gorgeous day?” Or, “I start precisely — precisely, mind — at half-past one. Come, come, come, and walk in the green lanes. You will work the better for it all the week. Come! I shall expect you.” Or, “You don’t feel disposed, do you, to muffle yourself up and start off with me for a good brisk walk over Hampstead Heath? I knows a good ’ous there where we can have a red-hot chop for dinner, and a glass of good wine,” which led to our first experience of Jack Straw’s Castle, memorable for many happy meetings in coming years.|
Dickens was fond of sports. One summer, he rented a house outside London, and invited friends and relatives to visit. They played various games, and
|Dickens for the most part held his own.... Bar-leaping, bowling, and quoits were among the games carried on with the greatest ardor; and in sustained energy, what is called keeping it up, Dickens certainly distanced every competitor. Even the lighter recreations of battledoor and bagatelle were pursued with relentless activity. [Quoits was similar to horseshoes, battledoor was similar to badminton, bagatelle might be described as miniature golf played on a board.]|
Sometimes Dickens visited a seaside town, and took long beach walks, or watched as a storm raged.
The vivacity that we find in Dickens’ biography is similar to the vivacity we find in his fiction. What I wrote about Proust and Kafka is also true of Dickens:
|Proust wasn’t bookish or pedantic. Like Kafka, Proust was more fascinated by life itself than by literature. Kafka and Proust viewed life from a literary standpoint, and found life to be the most profound and the most humorous of authors. Proust would have agreed with Kafka’s remark: “From life one can extract comparatively so many books, but from books so little, so very little, life.” The greatness of Kafka and Proust lies less in their learning than in their living. Proust learned a great deal from life, and his work is based on his own experience.|
On one Saturday night in April 1838, Dickens and Forster dined in London, then set out for a late-night ride to Richmond. Dickens had just published Nicholas Nickleby (this was his fourth book, following Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist). Forster writes,
|The smallest hour was sounding from St. Paul’s into the night before we started, and the night was none of the pleasantest; but we carried news that lightened every part of the road, for the sale of Nickleby had reached that day the astonishing number of nearly fifty thousand!|
A. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) is a movie about Dickens, based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Les Standiford. The movie focuses on the writing of A Christmas Carol. It depicts Dickens’ friendship with John Forster, his crowded household, his “prodigal father,” his negotiations with publishers, etc. Not a great movie, but it’s moderately effective both as Dickens biography and as Christmas tale, so I recommend it.
B. The Invisible Woman (2013) is a movie about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan; Dickens “kept company” with Ellen for the last 10-15 years of his life, and provided for her in his will. The movie does an excellent job of depicting Dickens — his passion for sports and games, his interest in amateur theatricals, his friendship with Wilkie Collins, his harsh treatment of his wife, his penchant for punctuality and order, his interest in mesmerism and the occult, etc. But when the movie depicts Dickens’ relationship with Ellen, it enters the realm of speculation — little is known with certainty about their relationship. I can’t recommend the movie with enthusiasm, it doesn’t grab the viewer, it doesn’t achieve “suspension of disbelief,” you’re never drawn in, you never forget that these are actors.
C. Honeyland (2019) is a Macedonian documentary about a beekeeper in a rural area, an area without electricity or running water. The beekeeper lives with her elderly mother, and comes into conflict with neighbors. According to Wikipedia, the beekeeper is “one of the last keepers of wild bees in Europe.” There’s no narration, just scenes of daily life, suggesting that subjective experience is what matters, not history, geography, etc. It’s a harsh movie — like drinking a glass of lemon juice. It’s easy to respect, but hard to like.
D. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019) is a documentary by Werner Herzog. Chatwin was a prominent travel writer and novelist who died of AIDS at age 49. Herzog was interested in Chatwin’s books (Herzog’s film Cobra Verde is based on a Chatwin novel), and Chatwin was interested in Herzog’s films. They met several times, and became friends; Herzog was with Chatwin when Chatwin was dying. Nomad isn’t my favorite Herzog film; it seems a bit disjointed, though it has memorable moments.
In earlier issues, I’ve praised the Youtube videos of Alexander Waugh, who has many fascinating insights into the Shakespeare controversy. Waugh’s latest video, “The Divinity of Man,” is especially interesting. He reveals some jaw-dropping correspondences between numbers — for example, he mentions Plato’s fascination with the number 5040, then he says that if you add the radius of the earth and the radius of the moon, you get 5040 miles. (In his Laws, Plato says that the ideal number of citizens in a city is 5040; he mentions 5040 seven times in the Laws.)
In an earlier issue, I discussed how Shakespeare adopted the number 1740 as his “personal number.” Waugh points out that 1740 has 24 divisors, and those divisors add up to 5040, a fact that Shakespeare was doubtless aware of. The sum of a number’s divisors was regarded, Waugh says, as “the soul of that number.” In the eyes of Pythagoras, Euclid, etc., a “perfect number” was one whose divisors added up to that number. For example, 6 is a perfect number because its divisors — 1, 2, and 3 — add up to 6 (this approach excludes the number itself from its divisors; another approach includes the number itself, then divides the sum of the divisors by 2).
When you watch Waugh’s video, you get the impression that the universe was laid out by a geometry expert, it’s the strongest argument for the existence of God that I’ve ever seen. Near the end of the video, however, Waugh says that John Dee probably established the length of the mile, so perhaps Dee was the geometry expert, not God, perhaps Dee is responsible for at least some of the correspondences.
Waugh mentions a book called Dimensions of Paradise: Sacred Geometry, Ancient Science and the Heavenly Order on Earth, by John Michell. Wikipedia describes Michell as “a prominent figure in the development of the Earth Mysteries movement.” Since the “sacred dimensions” are measured in miles, Michell opposed the adoption of the metric system. Wikipedia says that Michell often wrote about “paranormal and fortean phenomena.” The term “fortean” refers to American thinker Charles Fort, whom I discussed in an earlier issue.
Michell is interested in ancient customs, pagan customs — Stonehenge, for example. Some thinkers with a pagan or “traditionalist” bent favor right-wing ideas. Wikipedia says, “Following his death [in 2009], various aspects of Michell’s work have been adopted by thinkers associated with the European New Right and with related right-wing currents in the United States.” In an earlier issue, I discussed a right-wing Russian thinker, Aleksandr Dugin, who has been called a “traditionalist” and “Putin’s Rasputin.” Dugin is a fan of Hermetism and of the Italian thinker Julius Evola, who wrote a book on the Hermetic tradition.
I agree with Waugh that Shakespeare had a Hermetic worldview, but I don’t view Hermetism as Waugh does. Waugh argues that, at the core of the Hermetic worldview, is the belief that man is divine. I’ve argued that, at the core of the Hermetic worldview, is the belief that the universe is an organic whole, and everything is connected. I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s Hermetism is apparent in his depiction of connections — connections between the weather and the political situation, connections between celestial objects and man, connections between animals and man, etc. Waugh doesn’t discuss this connectedness; I regard this connectedness as the essence of Shakespeare’s worldview.