Ackroyd biography depicts Charles Dickens' lifelong search for a muse



Peter Ackroyd.


1,195 pages. $35. In 1870, shortly after Charles Dickens died, Robert Buspainted one of the most representative portraits of him. It shows Dickens sitting in his study, surrounded by books -- many of them his own. Superimposed on the books is a cloud. From it, Dickens' numerous characters emerge. Dickens appears lost in thought. As his amazingly blue eyes look at the tiny young woman -- possibly Little Nell, possibly his muse -- who sits on his knee, they seem not to see her. Instead, they look inward, as if he were under his own spell. And according to Peter Ackroyd's "Dickens," the author was under his own spell.

"Dickens" is a somewhat overly written but remarkably vivid and well-researched biography. Mr. Ackroyd, a British poet, journalist and author, received England's prestigious Whitbread Prize for his earlier life of T. S. Eliot, in which he explored "the mystery connecting the poet and his art." This life of Dickens also studies the secrets of creative genius: "To find in a day, a moment, a passing image or gesture, the very spring and source of his [Dickens'] creativity. . . ."

Dickens, like all great artists, attempted to portray the soul of his people. That he did so is proven by the continuing and universal appeal of his books and by his burial in Westminster Abbey, beside Shakespeare and Milton. But the genius of Dickens, as Mr. Ackroyd sees him, lies in contradiction and paradox.

Even his will seemed contradictory: In it, Dickens directed his family to bury him quietly. Here was a popular and prolific writer. Here was an ostentatious and meticulous dresser. Here was a public speaker and actor who gave readings in England, Europe and America. Here was a sometime hypnotist who liked nothing better than to cast a spell through his words, always his words. And he wanted no monument, "no ostentation," he said. He would rest his claims to remembrance solely on his published work.

Those few who knew him called Dickens a private person, a man of obsessions, who felt compelled to write: "I must do something or else I will wear my heart away." Judging from the immensity of his work, one would have to agree.

From 1832 when, at 20, he reported for a newspaper, the True Sun, until his death at 58, he wrote two volumes of sketches, 14 novels -- "Oliver Twist" to "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" -- five novelettes, 10or so Christmas stories including "A Christmas Carol," numerous signed and unsigned stories and articles for several newspapers and magazines, not to mention his letters (13,452 have been found) and his composite writings -- the articles on which he collaborated and the articles that he edited and required substantial rewriting. Dickens, incidentally, was not above rewriting for his audience. He learned his craft "in the wholesome training of severe newspaper work."

But there's a sorrowful note amid the productivity of Dickens' life. And it's the paradox Mr. Ackroyd probes throughout this book: Dickens was the last of the great Romantic novelists; he was the first of the great symbolic novelists; he was the acclaimed literary genius who created the age in his own image. But he was a man "incapable of creating his own happiness."

On several occasions, Dickens spoke to his closest friends not only about a troubled childhood -- his father in debtors' prison and the young Dickens forced to work in a blacking factory -- but also about his troubled manhood. He saw himself as someone who had missed out on his own life. He suggested as much in fragments from one of the few notebooks he did not burn:

"One who is always in pursuit of happiness. . . . One happiness I have missed in life, one friend and companion I have never made. . . . A misplaced and mismarried man . . . always playing hide and seek with the world. . . . Is this my experience?"

Judging from this sensitive, persuasive and thorough biography, the answer is yes. "There is always to be found within Dickens," Mr. Ackroyd writes, "that inner person -- hurt, watchful, afraid -- who looked out through the eyes of the successful writer. . . ." Dickens was afraid of being abandoned, of being unloved. It was this nervous susceptibility that led him to idealize others, "to live a world of his own creation. . . ." Dickens, as this book portrayshim, succeeded at everything except what he wanted most.

What Dickens wanted most was not love. If anything, Dickens was loved: by his parents, although they may have been shortsighted in the eyes of their son; by his friends, among whom were novelists Wilkie Collins and William Thackeray, and Dickens' first biographer, John Forster; by his 10 children; by his wife from whom he eventually separated; by his sister-in-law, Georgina, who stayed with Dickens after the separation and who never married; by his other sister-in-law, Mary, who some speculate may have been Dickens' first mistress and who died at age 17 in his arms; by Ellen Ternan, whom most biographers (Mr. Ackroyd is an exception) regard as Dickens' mistress; and by at least three other women for whom he felt a strong infatuation.

What Dickens wanted most was not even a muse. He wanted the Muse, the grand love who would inspire him to put his glorious vision into words. Ironically, Dickens had that Muse. And with her, he wrote life into art. But -- and this is the key to Dickens' creative genius and the point of this biography -- Dickens did not recognize her. The Muse, for Dickens, was not a woman, real or imagined; it was his continuous and obsessive pursuit of her.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad