Wilson’s book is a brilliant denunciation of the sickness of Victorian England. He is especially vivid on the moral horror of a self-confident, capitalist society without a safety net for those at the bottom: the pregnant women dying on the doorsteps of workhouses; the native villages across the colonies torched by British soldiers; the prostitutes starving on the streets. The 19th century, Wilson writes, was “horrific in a way only the Victorians knew how to make worse”, with its “slums, treadmills, racist imperialism” as well as “their music halls, their usually unfunny humorous periodicals, their pantomimes and vaudevilles, their excruciating Gilbert and Sullivan . . .”
The pervasive question in The Mystery of Charles Dickens is whether his monsters offer clues to the darker side of Dickens himself. This calls for a portrait of a divided being, whose public face is kept intact and separate from what the submerged self does, and yet, as an imaginative writer, Dickens has the courage to recognise and use it. Wilson scorns shallow connections between life and work: is Pemberley really Chatsworth? This won’t illumine a writer’s greatness. Instead he dares to encounter a writer in his deepest undersea habitat. He discovers that what Dickens concealed is, in fact, visible on the page for every eye to see, disguised as fictions.
Each of the chapters explores one of the mysteries of Dickens’ life — did he die in the arms of his lover? Why was he beastly to his wife? What was the truth about his childhood? And so on. Wilson is superb on the horrors of Victorian Britain, which illuminated the novelist’s vision. And in a riveting final chapter, he opens up on his own childhood, at a prep school where he was brutalised by a sadistic head teacher.
In his inquiry into the character of the great Victorian, Wilson sets out to solve the riddle of the mismatch between the Dickens we think we know, as readers of novels so rich with his experience, and the Dickens that presents himself to a biographer: often evasive, recalcitrant and contradictory. Wilson’s methods are unlike those of his army of predecessors, whose research he credits appreciatively — he mostly eschews new detective work in favour of a reinterpretation of the existing material.
As a novelist Wilson must surely appreciate the subtlety of the relationship between an author and his characters. But in his treatment of Dickens it is crudely simplified. The monstrous dwarf Quilp, for example, who lusts after Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, is “a demonic projection of Dickens himself”. No evidence is offered for this, except that “Quilp’s name is a shortening of Quill-pen, or the Writer”. Other Wilson breakthroughs are similarly presented as obvious. “Most of us realise”, for instance, when we first read King Lear, that it is like a pantomime, with Goneril and Regan as the Ugly Sisters.
While the book’s subject matter is fascinating and the research impressive, there are technical flaws – unnecessary reiteration of established facts and Wilson’s over-fondness for certain words. Who knew that “pantomimic” could be used so often in one book? Faulty editorial decisions aside, this book will be an exhilarating read for both Dickens aficionados and those who have only a passing familiarity with his work. For the former, it’s a truly detailed examination of the author’s life, works and times. For the latter, the story of a strange and mysterious life led in the public eye may encourage the reading of Dickens’s work.
But hats off – this is a wonderfully fresh and vivid account, fluently integrating life and work, teasingly constructed without being relentlessly chronological, and personally charged by an impassioned gratitude to Dickens that dates back to the imaginative solace his fiction offered when Wilson was a sensitive child incarcerated in a Dotheboys Hall prep school (chillingly described as “a concentration camp run by sexual perverts”).
Why else would anyone still want to read him? A.N. Wilson’s new book, which shares its title with a one-man show acted by Simon Callow that was filmed in 2000, sets out to answer this question not in a traditional cradle-to-grave biography but by looking through a series of smaller historical keyholes in order to glimpse the larger picture. Some chapters deal with the writing of individual works, for example The Mystery of Edwin Drood, while others expand the focus to consider the private obsessions that Dickens needed to act out, such as the wildly successful public readings that he performed in the later part of his career.
As it happens, while writing this book, Wilson was looking from his own study directly through the window of the house in which Kate lived out her years of lonely exile. It’s highly evocative. Wilson is matchless in his atmospherics.
If you are a Dickens aficionado, you will think that much of the book’s biographical narrative is well-known material, though here revisited in a sprightly manner. Yet its last, highly personal section suddenly shifts your sense of Wilson’s commitment to his subject. In his final chapter, he remembers first encountering episodes from Dickens at the age of eight or nine at his private school, which was “in effect a concentration camp run by sexual perverts”. The teacher who introduced him to Dickens was himself utterly sinister and Dickensian, the skill with which he impersonated Fagin and Squeers “all too convincing”. The shards of Dickens sustained his spirits among the privations and abuse visited on him by the paedophile headmaster and his monstrous wife, uninhibited sadists in Wilson’s vivid, detailed account. After this, nothing would convince him that Dickens should be condescended to as insufficiently “realistic”. And in returning him to the “abject terror and hopelessness” of childhood, but with that strange Dickensian stir of laughter (Fagin and Squeers, those comic turns), the novelist, hypocritical and self-deceiving as he might have been, has done him some matchless kindness.
A N Wilson’s new book is an enthralling, sometimes eccentric homage to a novelist whose works he has loved since childhood. He tops and tails this very personal exploration of Dickens’s many selves, secrets and double lives with poignant recollections of his own lonely years at a bleak prep school, where he was beaten by a sadistic master. Reading his way through Dickens was then his comfort, an escape into a rich and cathartic comic universe. When Wilson writes of Dickens’s ‘profound understanding of the inner child’, it is an observation born out of the experiences of a real child.