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NA0116 - DICKENS, C.: Portrait in Letters (A) (Unabridged)

Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
A Portrait in Letters


Dickens seems to have had an aversion to posterity. He stipulated in his will that there were to be no statues or memorials to commemorate him, loathed having his photograph taken, and, if he could, would have had every letter he had sent to friends and colleagues burnt.

In 1860 he had a huge bonfire of letters that had been sent to him:

‘They sent up a smoke like the genie when he got out of the casket on the seashore; and as it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished, I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens,’ he wrote to his business manager WH Wills, and was reported as saying: ‘Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.’

Fortunately for posterity—it being part of human nature to treasure letters connected with the famous—his friends did not destroy his, though he urged them to do so, and in all there are approximately 14,000 letters extant. He was an inveterate letter-writer, taking every opportunity to contact even mere acquaintances with a friendly note, or to indulge in lengthy missives full of description and opinion to his closer circle of friends, as well as sending lists of business instructions to the hard-pressed editor of Household Words, Wills. Writing was as natural as breathing to Dickens. He wrote his letters, and his novels, with a quill pen, expressing at times exasperation with the new-fangled steel nibs, and had a penchant for writing in blue ink on blue paper. His signature with its famous flourish was almost the equivalent of a modern brand logo, and it was emblazoned in gold leaf on the covers of some of the early collected editions of his works. The recipients of his letters expected to see it, and he self-consciously apologised when he didn’t feel up to executing it.

But what was Dickens afraid his letters would reveal to posterity? Was he concerned that too much of his personal life and intimate thoughts, intended only for the correspondent, would become public property and cheapen his reputation?

Whatever the reason, he destroyed every letter he received as a matter of course after 1860, writing with relief: and my mind is, so far, at ease.’

It is difficult to know just how close we get to the real Dickens in his letters.

He was always such a self-conscious showman that you can never be sure that he isn’t presenting a carefully composed image of the true Dickens for his friends and colleagues. Sometimes he presents himself almost as one of his own characters, which begs the question of whether there isn’t always an element of fiction in his letters. He is often playful, comical, and constantly seeking to entertain his friends in these letters with vivid descriptions of foreign countries and unusual people with whom he comes into contact.

Not only in his letters, but in life, Dickens loved to assume a character behind which he could hide his true personality. He constantly invented nicknames for himself such as ‘The Inimitable’, which he had been called at school, or ‘The Sparkler of Albion’; to his employees he was ‘The Chief’; and for the amusement of his children one Christmas, he became ‘the Unparalleled Necromancer RHIA RHAMA RHOOS.’ More seriously, when he began his affair with Ellen Ternan, he assumed the name of ‘Mr Tringham’ so that he could pay the rent on his and Ellen’s country retreat without detection.

The most public alternative identity he created for himself was of course the pen name ‘Boz.’ As a struggling young writer he seems to have desired anonymity, until the success of Oliver Twist in 1838 confirmed the talent he had displayed in The Pickwick Papers, and he could safely reveal to the world his true identity. Dickens lacked self-confidence as a young man, and all his life he was afraid of failing. This was the effect on his personality of years of neglect as a child, when he was forced to work in a blacking factory to support his feckless family. Having experienced poverty at first hand, he wasn’t going to let ‘Charles Dickens’ return to its deprivations. If ‘Boz’ had failed, ‘Dickens’ would still be intact to try again. His success as ‘Boz’ however, considerably reduced the possibility of failing as Charles Dickens.

What did Dickens’s family and friends think about his letters? Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law and stalwart supporter, thought his letters expressed Dickens’s ‘individuality’ with which his son Henry Dickens concurred, saying in his memoir of his father that the letters testify to the enjoyment Dickens got out of life. Dickens’s great friend Forster went so far as to say the letters were themselves ‘literature’ and admired their freshness of style. It is unfortunate therefore that Forster thought it necessary to destroy so many of Dickens’s letters when writing his biography. As one of Dickens’s principal correspondents he received hundreds during their long and close friendship, but compiled his biography of Dickens on a cut-and-paste system, literally cutting out the passages he required and then destroying the rest. He also felt free to re-write and edit the letters so the few examples we have in his biography may or may not represent what Dickens wrote.

Dickens’s daughter Kate was the first to question whether the true Dickens was revealed in the letters. Speaking of the letters he wrote to her mother in the 1830s, she wrote:

Dickens heart and soul are not in these letters but some of his Sunday clothes are; and then…there may be other letters, in which the real man is revealed, minus his Sunday clothes, and all shams, and with his heart and soul burning like jewels in a dark place.

The ‘dark places’ where we do come closer to the real man are to be found in the letters that are concerned with the causes close to his heart: literary copyright, capital punishment, the home for fallen women he set up with the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. We also get a taste of his renowned and ruthless efficiency in the glimpses we get of the letters regarding his amateur theatrical activities, as well as the hard schedule he always set for himself during the writing of a novel. But even with the vast number of letters extant, the moments of self-revelation are rare, and perhaps ultimately we learn more of him in his novels, which may be why he wanted his letters destroyed—he felt he had expressed his true self in his fiction. His books were his memorial.

Notes by David Timson

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