For anyone who loves literature, the question of how literary work comes into being, of what relationship there is between the creation and the creator, is of an interest almost as urgent as that felt for the books themselves. When a writer gives us the gift of a character we cannot forget, of a scene or story that changes our relationship to our world, of a way of thinking that wakes us from linguistic or moral inertia, we crave a closer contact with that life and mind. These are the pleasures offered by literary biography, and they may be abundantly found in Michael Slater’s new biography of a man who we might legitimately consider the 19th century’s greatest writer, Charles Dickens.
Slater’s book weighs in at over 600 pages, and in all fairness it would have been hard to make his book any shorter than this, for Dickens’ life itself was a vast one. The son of a financially reckless clerk who on more than one occasion was sent to jail for not paying his debts (forcing the young Charles, at the age of 12, to leave school for a few months and work in a factory), Dickens acquired his enormous success, wealth, goodwill and standing purely by dint of his energy, ambition and resourcefulness. Beginning his working life as a parliamentary reporter, he swiftly demonstrated the power of what a famous actor friend of his called his “clutching eye”, or eye for detail that seemed to bring a scene alive. His journalistic descriptions of London streets and incidents soon found an audience not just in the periodicals but when collected, into books. This work constituted Dickens’ training for a literary career in which London—a city he called his “magic lantern”—occupied the centre.
Best-seller: Dickens, says Slater, had an acute mind for business. Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin
To a greater extent than some of Dickens’ earlier biographers, Slater emphasizes that the writer is worth understanding not just as a literary figure but indeed as a businessman. In Dickens’ time it was not very common for a writer to make a living from his books alone. Indeed, book publication itself was not the thing that we know it to be now. Most novels of the day—and most of Dickens’ novels—appeared first in serial form in weekly or monthly periodicals, accompanied by illustrations. Only later were some of them given the dignity and standing of book publication.
Slater shows how, once Dickens began to acquire a sense of his audience, he relentlessly plotted and schemed to make not just his art thrive but also his finances. At times, by undertaking to cover all production costs in return for a larger share in profits, he overturned the traditional publisher-author business relationship by turning his publisher essentially into no more than a printer. He was happy to prepare handsome, expensive editions of his slim “Christmas books” (the best and most famous of which is A Christmas Carol, one of the greatest short novels in the English language) and cheap omnibus editions of his collected works. Having sold the copyright of some of his books when in need of money, he later bought them back at a much steeper price, just so that he might have control over his entire oeuvre.
Charles Dickens: Yale University Press,696 pages, £25 (around Rs1,700).
Indeed, Dickens’ greatest success was to to balance the competing pulls and pressures of literary artistry and commercial success. His stories are often melodramatic, but they are incandescent with marvellous metaphors, powerful descriptions of people and place, great flights of comic imagination, and also a sympathy for human frailties and an outrage at injustice perpetrated both by individuals and by systems. There is in them a luminous perception not just of particular characters and their predicaments, but also of an entire society. Slater describes the working notes that Dickens used to prepare to set up the structure of a story, and the way Dickens’ language, themes and characters develop across his career. Dickens’ sociability, infectious energy, and appetite for life and for narrative are in evidence everywhere.
In her short biography of Dickens, the novelist Jane Smiley remarks that the relationship between a novelist’s life and his work is not unidirectional, but rather dialectical. “Just as Dickens’s novels were in part commentary on his life,” she observes, “so his actions, in part, grew out of the way that writing novels gave his feelings and thoughts specific being.” In other words, just as Dickens wrote novels, so too did his novels in some way write him. The evidence of this claim is most fully worked out in Slater’s meticulously researched and readable biography.
IN SIX WORDS
Immensely readable new insights on Dickens
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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