I think that Dickens’s childhood stint in the soul-destroying blacking factory was the driving force behind his manic energy, restless creativity and ultimately his early death. If he hadn’t been packed off there by his mother – whom he never forgave for it – to help with the shaky family finances following his father’s imprisonment for debt we would if we were lucky have probably got another Harrison Ainsworth or some other now largely forgotten Victorian romancer instead of this life force of a novelist and reformer. It sometimes takes a shock to the system to set you on your real tracks and ensure that you never forget how easily it might all have been so very different.
As Bertrand Russell said, ‘I once befriended two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a famine. They lived in my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their leisure visiting neighbouring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded. Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a similar manner.’
Dickens obviously thrived in a hectic environment to judge from this small house that would have been packed with screaming kids, busy maids and fussing in-laws. On the timeline in the tiny attic room the publication of each novel was marked by the birth of yet another child and his wife must have felt like a sausage machine, pumping them out round the clock. For Dickens life was clearly a race against time, and he seems to have felt that if he relaxed even for an instant he’d be sucked back to the factory.
Wagner may have had a point when he said effectively that the public owed him a living because of what he’d painfully created for them in his operas. Dickens was of course English and wouldn’t have suggested such a thing, but my impression is that he was not a happy chappy at all, despite all the theatricals and endless posing, and that the novels and public readings were more to do with releasing the constant psychological pressure than with ‘creative expression’ as such.
Although he still exerts a strong appeal, much of his celebrated humour seems to me forced and unnatural, with a bitter edge to it, and his scenes of overblown pathos a cry for attention, unlike the easy flow of Shakespeare’s genuinely happy wit and genuinely heartrending death scenes. The deaths of Nancy Sykes and Falstaff bear little serious comparison. In fact I can imagine Shakespeare revelling in his creations and flair for characterisation as extensions of himself and the whole of humanity, but with Dickens it seems more a case of mental illness and displacement activities bred from deep-seated fears, insecurities and childhood trauma.
I’m probably completely wrong, but after wandering around the expensively refurbished Dickens House last Saturday that’s certainly the impression I came away with, the loud outcry of dismayed protestations from Mr Bumble, Mrs Gamp, Mr Pickwick, Alfred Jingle, Sam Weller and the entire household at Dingley Dell notwithstanding.