Carlo DeVito's new book about the writing of A Christmas Carol is unquestionably well-researched and full of fascinating details about the origin of Scrooge's and Marley's names, the relationships with family members that inspired some of the characters, Dickens's haunting fear of poverty and the Scrooge-like tendencies he had to fight in himself, the Malthusian ideology that he was trying to combat, and much more.
The latest entry in Orford's "Charles Dickens on . . ." series. Knowing how fiercely Dickens fought for the poor all his life, one would expect a consistently fiery tone throughout this essay collection. This turns out, surprisingly, not to be the case.
The first group of essays, about the high-profile case of Bartholomew Drouet (who owned a school where more than 150 children died of cholera under "appalling conditions"), is suitably fiery -- indeed, I think it's some of the best writing Dickens ever did. But just at the end, when we learn that Drouet got off scot-free and one would expect Dickens to boil over with rage, he instead writes quietly and matter-of-factly, as if almost too weary for words anymore. The effect is far more sobering than any outraged eloquence he could have possibly come up with.
In other essays he studies different facets of poverty: the "shabby-genteel," the begging-letter writers who plague him as a known philanthropist, the tramps, residents of the workhouse, and residents of his own Urania Cottage. Sometimes he shows genuine sympathy, but any group or individual that he finds more colorful than pitiable is fair game for his wit. He goes even further with the begging-letter writers; they come in for a full share of his wrath, as he blames them for taking bread out of the mouths of the genuinely poor: "The begging-letters flying about by every post, made it perfectly manifest, that a set of lazy vagabonds were interposed between the general desire to do something to relieve the sickness and misery under which the poor were suffering, and the suffering poor themselves. . . . The writers are public robbers; and we who support them are parties to their depredations. . . . Let us give all we can; let us give more than ever. Let us do all we can; let us do more than ever. But let us give, and do, with a high purpose; not to endow the scum of the earth, to its own greater corruption, with the offals of our duty."
In his general attitude toward poverty, in fact, Dickens comes across as far more nuanced, knowing, and thoughtful than most modern writers on the subject. Which, indeed, one probably should have expected all along.
The Murder of Patience Brooke by J. C. Briggs, published as an e-book in 2012, will be released in paperback in November. It's the first in the Charles Dickens and Superintendent Jones Investigate series, featuring Dickens as an amateur sleuth. More information can be found at the author's page. Has anyone here had a chance to read the e-version? If so, what did you think?
Simon Callow, ardent Dickensian, is a professional actor as well as a writer; Charles Dickens was an enthusiastic and talented amateur actor. It was therefore only a matter of time before Callow decided to write a book about Dickens that focused on the theatrical aspects of his life. He does a very creditable job of it, extending the theater metaphor to all areas of Dickens's life without forcing it or overdoing it. Dickens was, after all, a theatrical kind of person -- the love of entertaining was so deeply ingrained in him that he seemed to live all of life on a stage of his own.
Despite his great love and admiration for Dickens, Callow is actually rather hard on him at times, making harsh judgments about his actions, thoughts, and motives, especially in his personal life. He may have been trying to rein himself in from gushing over his idol. The odd thing is that toward the end of Dickens's life, when his personal life really would justify some harshness, Callow seems to ease off. Perhaps that's because this is the era when Dickens was most involved in the theater, and Callow was so busy focusing on this, and so enjoying all the theatrical details, that he didn't care much about the personal anymore!
Callow clearly knows his stuff when it comes to Dickens, but I did catch one small but important error: He claims that, in regard to religion, Dickens "revered" Christ but "denied his divinity." As has been argued elsewhere, this is far from the truth -- so far that one wonders if Callow let a little personal bias creep in here. Nonetheless, despite occasional flaws, this is overall an excellent book with a unique perspective that makes it well worth reading.
"As in its author's previous fictions, we are almost oppressed by the fulness of life which pervades the pages of this novel. Mr. Dickens has one of the most mysterious attributes of genius -- the power of creating characters which have, so to speak, an overplus of vitality, passing beyond the limits of the tale, and making itself felt like an actual, external fact. In the stories of inferior writers the characters seem to possess just sufficient personality and presence to carry on the purpose of the narrative; one never thinks of them as enjoying any existence at all outside the little tissue of events that has been woven for them. They are ghosts whom the author has evoked out of night and vacuity to perform certain definite offices within the charmed circle of the fiction to which they are attached; and when we step out of that circle at the conclusion of the ceremonies, they vanish again into nothingness, and we think no more of them. Such is not the case with the conceptions of larger geniuses. These do not seem to belong wholly to the one set of events with which they are associated, any more than the men and women we actually know present themselves to our thoughts as the puppets of a definite train of circumstances. The creations of authors such as Mr. Dickens have a life of their own. We perceive them to be full of potential capacities -- of undeveloped action. They have the substance and the freedom of actual existences; we think of what they would do under our conditions, they are possessed of a principle of growth."