Emily Bowles, A Brief History of Dickens Bashing

Emily Bowles is a PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research focuses on Charles Dickens’s self-representation 1857-1870, and representations by Dickens’s friends and family 1870-1939. She is also a postgraduate representative for the Northern Nineteenth Century Network, and you can find her on Twitter @EmilyBowles_. She will be speaking about Charles Dickens and the Dickens family writings at ‘Writing Lives’ at the University of Leicester.

The recent publication of Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis has sparked some strong reactions in the Dickensian community, coalescing around the anniversary of Dickens’s death and Dickens’s heroic actions at the Staplehurst crash. Jarvis’s book, based on his own research but fictionalised into an engaging detective novel, pictures the young Charles Dickens as an ambitious bully and thief, manipulating illustrator Robert Seymour eventually resulting in his suicide, and then obscuring Seymour’s role in creating The Pickwick Papers. For some, Jarvis’s book is the latest in a recent trend of publications denigrating Dickens: otherwise known as ‘Dickens bashing’.

What do we mean by Dickens bashing? For those who find Jarvis’s work problematic, the issue lies in the perception that there is a tendency in recent years to ignore all the good of Dickens’s work for social reform, his philanthropy and the excellence of his novels in favour of personal attacks on his character. However, Dickens bashing is not a recent trend. Although the last few years have seen several publications that look at the darker side of his character (such as Lillian Nayder’s 2011 The Other Dickens, a biography of Dickens’s wife Catherine that highlights his unfair treatment of her; the 2013 Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb that focuses on Dickens’s relationship with his children and the impact of his sending many of them abroad; and The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, outlining the evidence of Dickens’s affair with teenage actress Ellen Ternan, published in 1990 but made into a film in 2013), Dickens’s affair was not the great secret, even during his life, that many have thought.

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse

Patrick Leary’s “How the Dickens Scandal Went Viral” describes American rumours about Dickens’s split from Catherine, showing that Ellen Ternan’s name appeared in American newspapers in connection to Dickens in the late 1850s.[1] In Britain, her name was mostly hidden until the early twentieth century and the appearance of biographies and accounts in the 1930s. Biographer Thomas Wright had begun his research in the 1890s, but wouldn’t publish his controversial Life of Charles Dickens until 1935, after the last of Dickens’s children had died and those personally involved were long gone. Following on Wright’s heels, Gladys Storey’s Dickens and Daughter was a revealing biography of Dickens and his daughter Kate Perugini published in 1939. Even earlier was This Side Idolatry, a Mills and Boon novel by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts that showed Dickens as an arrogant, hypocritical figure with a long-suffering, mistreated wife.

Bechhofer Roberts wrote for the Dickensian magazine, connected to the Dickens Fellowship and dedicated to promoting and preserving Dickens scholarship, and had written biographies of Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead. This Side Idolatry was something different. The novel begins much like any biography, outlining Dickens’s birth and childhood. The young Charles’s ambition quickly becomes central, and his need for admiration and his weakness for adulation are highlighted. Throughout the novel, Dickens’s self-love, his callous treatment of his wife, and his insecurities, are the focus. The novel culminates in an (entirely fictional) argument between Dickens and his wife Catherine, in which she finally accuses him of the cant and hypocrisy that he has set his career against. [2] At the novel’s close, we are told that John Forster, Dickens friend and first key biographer in the 1870s,

established the tradition that Charles, the Inimitable Boz, had ever shown himself in his life as in his work the uncompromising foe of Cant, Hypocrisy and Humbug. Kate still kept her silence. [3]

The heyday of Dickens bashing, then, would seem to be the 1920s and 1930s, spurred on by the thinning numbers of Dickens’s immediate family and closest friends who would – and could – defend the author’s name, considering that he had died over fifty years before. A response to This Side Idolatry, published in the Dickensian, gave this cutting reply:

For our own part, in making an estimate of the personal character of Dickens, we prefer to pin our faith to the opinions of those who met him in daily concourse; only such opinions count.[4]

Unfortunately for the Dickensian, Storey’s Dickens and Daughter was based on interviews with someone who knew Dickens better than most. In this account, we hear about daughter Kate’s ‘poor, poor mother’ and the existence of an illegitimate child fathered by Dickens. Although Kate expresses her love for her father, through her we see that he was a deeply flawed man. The Dickensians who had held to the ‘true’ accounts given by Dickens’s family and friends now had a problem, and the Dickensian response was that the book “showed Mrs. Perugini in a not very worthy light”[5]. Kate’s account is set against those given by her siblings, and the conclusion is that, weighing up the evidence, “It does not ring true”[6]. Dickens’s own daughter is discounted, because she contradicts the image that the Dickens Fellowship had been working to maintain since its creation in 1902.

Perhaps the first, and best-known, exercise in Dickens bashing is George Henry Lewes’s “Dickens in Relation to Criticism” (1872).[7] Lewes focuses on Dickens’s imagination, using the incidents from Dickens’s life known at that time to argue that his imagination is defective, effeminate, and rooted in too much feeling: “Dickens sees and feels, but the logic of feeling seems the only logic he can manage”[8]. Although Lewes’s article is focused on his novels, it shows that the need to locate Dickens’s genius in his life, and to find a way to reconcile the man and the author, is nothing new – and wasn’t new, even in the twentieth century.

For many people who read and research Dickens today, there seems to be an irreconcilable conflict between Dickens the man and Dickens the author. For some, it’s necessary to ignore the darker side of Dickens’s personality in order to celebrate the best of his work; for others, it’s not possible to appreciate his work when his questionable behaviour is known. But biographies of Dickens for nearly one hundred and fifty years have sought to tie Dickens’s genius as a writer to his troubled life, whether focusing on his difficult childhood or his treatment of his wife. The resounding message is that you can’t have one without the other. Do we need our authors and heroes to be spotless to admire them? How much can we forgive, and how should we respond differently to the writing when we know more about the life? Is there a place for some old-fashioned Dickens bashing?


Further Reading

‘Boz, Tibbs, and the Sparkler of Albion: The Many Names of Charles Dickens’

Reading Serially: The Digital Resurrection of a Victorian Experience?

[1]Patrick Leary, Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press, 1850-1870 (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2013), pp. 305-25.

[2]C. E. Bechhofer Roberts, This Side Idolatry (London: Mills and Boon, 1928), p. 315.

[3]Bechhofer Roberts, p. 319.

[4]“Our Reply to ‘Ephesian’” Dickensian 25 (1928), p. 1.

[5]J. W. T. Ley, “Father and Daughter” Dickensian 35 (1939), p. 250.

[6]Ley, p. 253.

[7]George Henry Lewes, ‘Dickens in Relation to Criticism’, Fortnightly Review 62 (1 February 1872).

[8]Lewes, p. 161.


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