I was already planning to write a few more paragraphs on Dickens, when I woke up yesterday and found a review of what appears to be an important new biography, by Michael Slater. And then today Dickens and the Christmas Carol manuscript are highlighted in the NY Times, where they’ve been on view, with the help of the Morgan Library, since the beginning of December. Oh well, you never know when or what or why, and just have to take these things as they come.
The note I left out the other day, on Carol itself, is to nod at the significant benefit Dickens enjoyed when he stepped out of the grind of serial publishing. In the case of Carol, it’s less noticeable than it might be otherwise because the book is so short. We don’t think of writing a long short story as such a radical departure from an installment of serial publication, and ACC is not really a novel. but it gains a few points by the fact that it was published as a stand alone book and always was intended to be such. In the end, perhaps we should note the effectiveness and accomplishment of this specifically timed, created, and marketed text, which was composed as a single whole, and thus a rarity in Dickens’ works.
The criticism of Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, as I recall, makes a big deal out of how it wasn’t serialized, and its composition as a single, unified text. ACC is a much earlier example of the same phenomenon, on a smaller, but evidently an even more successful scale. I guess the only thing to be said is that the dynamos of Victorian fiction perhaps sold themselves short by agreeing to write by installment.
I also wanted to clean up and discuss the way that Standiford uses the existing Dickens biographical canon. He makes liberal use of Forster and the letters, and I’ve always wanted to settle in with Forster, and get to know his work better from the perspective of Victorian biography and the literary biographical tradition. It’s one of those things that I planned to do if I had followed the academic path. I remember racing through sections of it way back when, and powering similarly through Lockhart’s Life of Scott, and I didn’t take away an impression, aside from a thumbnail knowledge of Forster’s role and function. I wonder now to what degree Forster knew Boswell and modeled himself after him. It seems that he had a great opportunity, living on such intimate terms with Dickens for such a long time, but he wasn’t able, it doesn’t seem, to marshall his materials into a higher, transcendent form, probably because he was following basic Victorian conventions. I’m curious about all this, and I should keep quiet until I can look into it so that I know what I’m talking about.
Standiford cites Peter Ackroyd’s 1990 biography for its “comprehensiveness,” and seems to rely on it. He calls Ackroyd the “author of the the definitive modern biography of Dickens” on pg. 24 of his book. Edgar Johnson’s two volumens, which were my own early 80’s standby, aren’t mentioned, and a glance shows that they were published in 1952, so perhaps Johnson’s day is done. Standiford notes that the brief biography by an old favorite of mine, Jane Smiley, is incisive, and he quotes her once or twice. Claire Tomalin’s 1991 book on Dickens and Ellen Ternan also makes the list. So now I want to find out more about Michael Slater and his new book. Twenty years since Ackroyd’s book is a good chunk of time. I should add the note that I checked out a book on “the Dickens industry” a while ago, when I was curious about Dickens and Annie Fields (I’m still curious about that relationship).
And I’m reading The Christmas Carol, which is fun. Not so much to say about it, other than that I’m trying to figure out if I’ve read it before. I think not, but If I did I don’t remember enough for it to make a difference. What I do remember much more clearly, along similar lines, is my initial experience of reading Oliver Twist. It was probably within the confines of the first ten Victorian novels that I read, or even novels at all, and somehow I thought I knew it well enough from its adaptations. I was a part of the “Oliver” generation, I guess, the same age as the kids playing Oliver and the Artful Dodger in the film. At any rate, when I got around to actually reading Dickens I was amazed at how fun and funny and rich and wonderful it all was. ever since, I’ve always tried to get people to read Oliver Twist, rather than to rely on their notions from adaptations. So now I’m cleaning up a similar mess on Christmas Carol.