Review by Walter Cummins
Not only could the title of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, be appropriate for Helena Kelly’s exposé of the many biographical deceptions she has compiled in The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens, the books share some of the same people. Smith based her fiction on the world around the minor Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, and it was at Ainsworth’s home that the young Dickens first met his close friend Charles Forster, who eventually became his biographer and the source of many of the assumed facts of the Dickens legend.
But, according to Kelly’s painstaking research, Dickens manipulated Forster by hiding many truths and, instead, feeding him a series of alternative falsehoods that became certified as fact in the pages of Forster’s posthumous Life. Best known is the story that twelve-year-old Dickens—while his father was in Marshalsea debtor’s prison—was forced to work at manual labor in a boot blacking factory. That experience has been taken as an autobiographical revelation for the hero’s similar circumstance in David Copperfield.
Readers certain they know about Dickens’ history assume he was finally revealing a shameful secret that had haunted him all his life. But Kelly doubts that it ever happened, according to her extensive findings, including testimony from contemporaries that Dickens was in school with them during the supposed boot blacking years. The factory was operated by a relative in a very competitive business, and Kelly wonders if Dickens actually might have only written some advertising verse. In addition, during those years, his family was managing to pay for Dickens’ sister Fanny’s musical education at the Royal Academy of Music. Why treat Charles so differently? Why did he deceive Forster?
Kelly documents example after example of Dickens’ deceptions and fabrications as he attempts to cover up what actually happened or to glorify himself through exaggerations. In one case, he fails to reveal boyhood years in the rough town of Chatham, saying he spent them in the more prestigious cathedral city of Rochester. In another case, he claims to have survived a dangerous train wreck, although such an event was never reported in the press.
Kelly’s research is convincing when it compares Dickens’ version of events with the contrary documentation and testimony of others. But she also attempts to offer speculation about matters for which there is no clear proof. It may be likely that Dickens suffered bouts of depression at various periods of his life. Whether he suffered syphilis and passed it on to his wife and children is more circumstantial.
Kelly builds a strong case that Dickens was a deceiver and perhaps not a nice man. But as her accusations accumulate one after another, she appears to be exposing her own growing animus toward him, to the point of dismissing his literary achievements. She accuses him of trampling on the finer feelings of people in his life: “Whether we can forgive the damage he did along the way, the lies he told, is another question altogether.” She adds:
Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests [in an article about Lord Byron’s abuses as a husband] no matter how popular the writer, his narrative should not be permitted to stand unquestioned. Though expressed in staunchly mid-Victorian terms, this is not a million miles away from the modern idea that the character of a painter or a writer or an actor is of paramount importance, that art cannot be separated from the artist, nor the message from the messenger. And what happens to Dickens’s work then?
To support this claim that Dickens’ works should be judged by his moral failures as man, Kelly emphasizes Dickens’ fallow periods, his writer’s blocks, the weaknesses of a number of his Christmas stories, as if an output of fifteen novels, dozens of stories and essays, and edited magazine issues were not evidence of a substantial career. She considers the novels of his later period inferior to his earlier works, citing selected criticisms and ignoring the widespread judgment that these are among the greatest novels ever written.
She often considers a scene or character in Dickens’ fiction a direct outlet of a suppressed biographical attitude or emotion, as if that is a personal defect: “Dickens really does seem, at this point in his career, to be confident in his ability to handle material drawn from his own life while managing to manipulate exactly how his readers will understand and respond to it. … By making some of the connections between real life and his fictions so obvious, he invited his audience to make more on their own—both at the time, and in the future.” Kelly ignores the fact that most writers transform life into fiction for purposes of creating a story, often unconsciously, rather than focusing on managing perceptions of their biography. In short, she has it in for Dickens.
The man did lie and obfuscate, mistreat his wife, distance himself from several of his many children, conduct an adulterous relationship with a much younger mistress, and possibly father a child with her. All this certainly conflicts with his public persona of champion of the underdog and creator of happy households enjoying a Christmas goose and calling for God to bless us, everyone. Because Dickens was such a popular figure, millions were curious about the man behind the works, a possible reason Dickens took pains to manage his image. The public knows much less about the private lives of most writers and artists. In other notorious cases, biography becomes a source of scandal. Consider Rousseau, Lord Byron, Picasso, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Stan Getz, and Ernest Hemingway. Despite the outrage of Stowe and Kelly, we can damn the actions of the man without damning his creations.