… it’s hard to imagine an author better able to stand up to this kind of excessive popular celebration. Though time and inclusion on high school curricula has lent him a highbrow gloss, Dickens has been a writer of mass popularity since the serialization of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, attending one of Dickens’s readings in Boston, “laughed as if he must crumble to pieces,” but, discussing Dickens afterward, he said, “I am afraid he has too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest…He daunts me! I have not the key.”
Travelling in Italy in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote to Georgina Hogarth – sister of his soon-to-be estranged wife Catherine, and herself the writer’s stalwart housekeeper and executor – about his efforts to order a local bubbly. Dickens, who called himself “The Inimitable”, tries to find the right word in Italian for “un vino come champagne”. The waiter helps him out: “spumante”. “Inimitable: ‘Ecco la parola. L’ho trovato!’” He had indeed found the right word. The “Sparkler of Albion” almost never ceased to fizz. Edited with unobtrusive intelligence and insight by Jenny Hartley, this bicentenary selection of his letters both celebrates his unstoppered effervescence – and lets the reader count its cost, both for the Sparkler and his loved ones.
In death, Charles Dickens still keeps his greatest secret to himself — the essence of his energy. None of the physical relics he left behind betray it. The manuscripts of his novels — like “Our Mutual Friend” at the Morgan Library — look no more fevered or hectic than the manuscripts left behind by other novelists.
… as we near his bicentenary, we should remember that this was a man tortured by the memory of poverty as a child, thin-skinned, cruel to his wife, dismissive of his children, a slave to overwork and, ultimately, victim of an early death, worn out not least in the effort to support himself, his estranged wife, and his mistress and her family.
His is a very Victorian story of social mobility, sexual hypocrisy, and tortured genius.