A bloodless life of the great Victorian writer offers little newby Matthew Adams / June 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
Literary biographers love a puzzle. But few practitioners of the craft have answered the allure of enigma with the alacrity of AN Wilson. His study of CS Lewis made much of the apparent conundrum that the creator of Narnia was able to inspire in equal measure feelings of hostility and affection. His Life of Milton placed at its heart the supposed paradox that the man who was capable of writing Paradise Lost was also capable of treating his wife and daughters appallingly. The result, as Martin Amis remarked, was a work that read like a “thesaurus of speculation.”
To these contributions we can add Wilson’s new biography of Dickens which, as its title indicates, is also preoccupied by mystery. Opening with an account of the “mystery” of Dickens’s death in 1870 (was it brought on by an ill-advised tryst with his secret lover, the actress Nelly Ternan?), the book goes on to address a number of additional “mysteries” that Wilson regards as central to understanding his subject’s art and existence. Among these lie “the mystery of his childhood and his past; the mystery of his passionate, sincere and burning charity… the mystery of his relationship with the public… the mystery of his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Most of these puzzles are solved, if that is the word, by plundering Dickens’s fiction for hints about his character and motivations, engaging in the occasional bit of amateur psychology, and making much of the proposition that his sensibility and his creations can best be explained by embracing the bloodless insight that Dickens was a “divided self.”
Arising from these modes of analysis is an endeavour whose aptitude for banality—“Dickens was a writer like no other”; “of all the great novelists, Dickens is the most mysterious”—is almost impressive. John Carey once observed that Dickens used his imagination to transform the world. Wilson tells us little of the alchemy by which he did so.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens by AN Wilson (Atlantic, £20)