Feb. 12, 2010

A Lesson from Dickens

In December 1839, Charles Dickens was 27 years old and already a superstar. He had written the Boz sketches, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Each was a double sensation, scoring first as a serial — the day an installment of Nickleby was released, according to a contemporary account, the Strand “looked almost verdant with the numerous green [magazine] covers waving to and fro in the hands of the passengers along that busy thoroughfare” — then as a bound book. He was inexhaustible, creatively and physically. In addition to the long, serialized stories, he had written plays, musicals, and countless smaller pieces. He was a word fountain. All the while, he essentially maintained a parallel career as a magazine editor, generating much of the content himself.

The autumn of 1839 was particularly triumphant. In September he finished Nickleby, which had given him trouble. (“Thank God that I have lived to get through it happily,” he wrote in his diary.) It was published as a single volume on October 23. Six days later, his second daughter, Katherine, was born. Around this time, too, he was hired to edit a new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, scheduled to launch the following spring essentially as a vehicle for his own writing and to capitalize on his fame. In early December he moved his family into a lavish thirteen-room home with a large garden opposite Regent’s Park. He leased the house for eleven years at a cost of £800 down plus a yearly rent of £160 — in today’s dollars, about $100,000 down, $19,000 a month.

By any measure, Dickens had made it. He was the hot young thing. The boy who had once been stripped of his middle-class expectations — his education abruptly canceled, shunted off at the age of twelve to work in a rat-infested blacking factory — was a star.

But on December 6, 1839, he did a strange thing: he registered as a law student at the Middle Temple. In today’s terms, he applied to law school.

When I first read this fact, in Michael Slater’s new and wonderful biography, Charles Dickens (the source for all the material in this post), I thought Dickens must have “applied to law school” to gather material for his writing. He had a long-standing interest in the law and had been a law clerk as a young man. And he often went on long rambles in and around London to find material, sometimes walking 20 or 25 miles, later spinning stories based on some little scene he witnessed. Surely he meant to do research, not actually become a lawyer.

But Slater writes that Dickens intended precisely that. “[A]ware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of [Sir Walter] Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.” Six years later, Dickens was still concerned enough to keep his name on the books as a law student at the Middle Temple, Slater writes, “so that he might one day be called to the Bar where ‘there are many little pickings to be got.'”

Dickens’s story is not quite Horatio Alger. Dickens was not a poor boy who made good. He was a respectable middle-class boy who lost everything then finally got it back — and then some. But the anxiety of seeing his father abruptly tumble out of the middle class all the way to debtor’s prison never really left him. The following winter of 1839-40, Dickens created the character of Jack Redburn for the new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He described Redburn as a boy “reared in the expectation of a fortune he has never inherited.” He was describing his own younger self.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s childhood and subsequent success followed a similar arc. The parallel seems too close to be a coincidence: the two giants of English letters, neither especially well schooled but both forced to learn as young boys how quickly it can all be taken away.

But what was the lesson, exactly? What did the experience teach them? Empathy? Both were suddenly transformed from one sort of person to another, in society’s eyes. Or was it a lesson in the importance of hard work, never taking anything for granted? Maybe. Both men became ferociously hard workers and sharp businessmen. Or was it a lesson in how superficial social status really is, in the vanity of social pretensions? Both men did become expert critics of the worlds they lived in. Both saw their own times and the people around them with unusual clarity. Probably the tumble from respectability taught them all of these things.

Maybe for a writer it is not enough to want, to yearn. Maybe what you need is to have something — money, love, security — and lose it, then yearn to get it back. Maybe every great writer has his blacking factory.

Illustration: Detail from a portrait of Dickens at 27, made by his friend Daniel Maclise in 1839. The portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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