Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Life of Charles Dickens - John Forster

It might seem odd in the 21st century to read a biography of Charles Dickens that was written in the 1870s, the middle of the Victorian period, a time notorious for hushing up scandals & publishing hagiographies of the great & good. If you really want to know about Dickens, surely it's better to read Slater, Ackroyd, Tomalin or Johnson? After all, you won't find out about Dickens's cruel behaviour to his wife or about his affair with Ellen Ternan in a book written just after his death by his best friend. It's true. Forster barely mentions Catherine Dickens (in Dickens's letters she goes from being called Kate to Catherine to poor Catherine to silence) & I only caught one mention of Ellen (I assume the E mentioned is Ellen) at the very end of the book. Dickens is recounting a dream in a letter to Forster,

On Thursday night in last week, being at the office here, I dreamed that I saw a lady in a red shawl with her back towards me (whom I supposed to be E). On her turning round I found that I didn't know her, and she said "I am Miss Napier."  All the time I was dressing next morning, I thought - What a preposterous thing to have so very distinct a dream about nothing! and why Miss Napier? for I never heard of any Miss Napier. That same Friday night, I read. After the reading came into my retiring-room, Mary Boyle and her brother, and the Lady in the red shawl whom they present as Miss Napier! These are all the circumstances, exactly told. May 30, 1863 quoted in Volume 3, Chapter 19)

But, I loved this big, baggy monster of a book. I'm not sure exactly how baggy it is. I listened to Volume 1 on audio (beautifully read by Greg Wagland from Magpie Audio) & read Volumes 2 & 3 as ebooks as part of the Delphi Classics Dickens, but it must be over 1,000 pages. I bought the illustrated, abridged edition for my library a few years ago & that's 500pp. Forster has always struck me as a bit of a plodder - Watson to Dickens's Holmes - & it's true that his writing is quite pedestrian. He was one of those Victorian literary men who are forgotten today except in their relationships with other famous Victorians. I've always been fascinated to know that John Forster was engaged to the poet, L.E.L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon). As a woman making a living from her writing, Landon was a controversial figure, who was rumoured to have had affairs & borne children out of wedlock. Forster asked her to refute the rumours & she asked him to investigate for himself. Apparently he was satisfied but she broke off the engagement because she said she couldn't marry a man who distrusted her. Forster strikes me as so cautious & careful that I can't imagine him engaged to Landon in the first place. I believe that Lucasta Miller (author of The Brontë Myth) is writing a biography of Landon & I can't wait to read it. Forster is mainly remembered these days as the friend & first biographer of Dickens.

Forster tells the story of Dickens's life - his childhood, family, early attempts at writing, the overnight success of The Pickwick Papers, the growing readership with each new novel, the periodicals he "conducted", his travels to America & Europe & the famous series of readings of his own work that made Dickens even more famous by the end of his life. The writing is genial & painstaking. However, as soon as Dickens makes a personal appearance in his letters or in an anecdote Forster remembers from their long friendship, the narrative fizzes. This is the real attraction of the book for me & makes me keen to read more of Dickens's letters. The letters show what a genius Dickens was. Everything he wrote became a story & some of his letters are as well-shaped as a chapter from the novels. The story of the death of the raven, Grip, is so moving yet so very funny. Magpie Audio chose this section of the book as the audio sample on Audible &, after hearing that, I just had to listen to the whole book.

The advantages that Forster brings to the familiar story lie in his intimate acquaintance with Dickens. Forster was not only a friend but a literary adviser, reading the novels in proof as they were written & advising on titles, illustrations & dealings with printers & publishers. He was one of the few people who knew about Dickens's experiences as a child - his father's imprisonment for debt & his own period of humiliation working in the blacking factory. It was in this biography that Dickens's reminiscences of his childhood were revealed for the first time. I found those early chapters very moving, even though I've read the story many times before. Imagine how the first readers would have felt, seeing the inspiration for many of the characters & plots of the novels based so closely on the author's own experiences.

Although Forster is discreet to the point of impenetrability at certain moments of Dickens's life, his personal knowledge of the man allows him to give some insight into his character which is impossible for any later biographer because it comes from personal observation. This is how he describes Dickens at the time of the breakdown of his marriage in 1858,

An unsettled feeling, greatly in excess of what was usual with Dickens, more or less observable since his first residence at Boulogne, became at this time almost habitual, and the satisfactions which home should have supplied, and which indeed were essential requirements of his nature, he had failed to find in his home. He had not the alternative that under this disappointment some can discover in what is called society. It did not suit him and he set no store by it. ... It was among those defects of temperament for which his early trials and his early successes were accountable in perhaps equal measure. He was sensitive in a passionate degree to praise and blame, which yet he made it for the most part a point of pride to assume indifference to; ... His early sufferings brought with them the healing powers of energy, will, and persistence, and taught him the inexpressible value of a determined resolve to live down difficulties... (Volume 3, Chapter 7)

The subject of the public readings Dickens gave is one where the two men disagreed quite decisively. Forster was against the readings. He felt that they would not enhance his reputation & the implication is that they were a little beneath him. They were too close to theatre & actors were regarded as socially & morally suspect (Claire Tomalin's book, The Invisible Woman, gives an excellent account of the world of the Victorian theatre & the less than respectable reputation of actors in relation to the Ternan family). Forster also feared that Dickens's health would not be up to the strain - & he was right about that. Dickens was determined to go ahead. He was a showman & loved the theatre, putting on plays with his family & for benefit performances for fellow writers. He loved to be in charge & he conducted his theatrical adventures as he did every other part of his life, with 110% effort & commitment. He was also tempted by the considerable sums of money that managers & entrepreneurs were willing to pay him.

I found myself wondering what the first readers & critics made of this. Trollope was derided for seeing his writing as a job, writing so many words every day & being pleased with the money he made, which he described in his Autobiography. Dickens may have loved being on stage but he loved the money he made just as much. Letter after letter to Forster lists the takings from each night's readings, the effect his reading had on the audience (women fainting & having to be taken from the theatre) & the queues of people desperate to get tickets.

The last years of Dickens's life were plagued by ill health. He was involved in the Staplehurst railway crash & this shook his nerves as well as resulting in physical problems. His left side was affected, especially his foot, which swelled so much at times that he couldn't walk. For a man who could walk all night without any ill effect (& often did), this meant that he was deprived of an outlet for his energy that he needed. His night walking also helped him to think through his work & gave him that intimate knowledge of London & the countryside around his home at Gad's Hill that he used so well in the novels. Forster tried to convince him to give up the readings & slow down but this was Dickens's reply,

"Too late to say, put the curb on, and don't rush at hills - the wrong man to say it to. I have now no relief but in action. I am incapable of rest. I am quite confident I should rust, break, and die, if I spared myself. Much better to die, doing. What I am in that way, nature made me first, and my way of life has of late, alas! confirmed.I must accept the drawback - since it is one - with the powers I have; and I must hold upon the tenure prescribed to me."

Forster describes the grief of people from all over the world when Dickens died & quotes the letters that he received. He describes his purpose in writing the Life to be to show the man himself, the way his books were conceived & written, using the letters written to him & the recollections of others. He says that he used barely half the letters in his possession & I think I read somewhere that he destroyed all the letters when the book was finished. If only he hadn't burned the letters! One of the many If onlys in literary history (If only we had Emily Brontë's second novel, if only we had Charlotte Brontë's letters to Mary Taylor, if only Dickens himself hadn't had so many bonfires of his correspondence, if only Princess Beatrice hadn't censored Queen Victoria's letters...). Still, there's no use crying over burnt letters & at least we have the hundreds of quotations in this book.

I wouldn't recommend Forster's Life as the first book to read about Dickens but it's definitely worth reading if you've read the modern biographies & want a more intimate view of the man. For all the discretion & the obfuscation, Forster's Life is fascinating in the way that Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë is fascinating. The authors knew their subjects & the sense of intimacy & personal knowledge makes up for the evidence suppressed & the curtains drawn over the less attractive aspects of their subject's character.


  1. Wonderful review! I love Dickens and have read several modern biographies but Forster only as quoted by the later biographers. From what you say, I could manage Forster's book in spite of its size!

    1. I might have been daunted if I'd realised just how big it is but I did love it & listening to the audio of the first volume was wonderful. If you've only read bits of Forster in the modern biogs, I think you'd enjoy reading the whole thing.