Engraving of Fagin by George Cruikshank (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What the Dickens!

150 years since Dickens’s death, Alexander Larman evaluates the memorialised writer’s questionable politics

Artillery Row

When I was growing up, I was often told that Charles Dickens was the greatest English writer after Shakespeare. I sometimes even wondered if the people telling me that – relatives, teachers, writers I admired – believed that Dickens wasn’t in fact an even better author than Stratford Will. After all, none of the Bard’s plays had been turned into a lively and anachronistic musical containing songs like ‘Oom-pah-pah’, and Dickens’s novels seemed to be more accessible than much of Shakespeare’s drama. The latter, in performance at least, was often stiff, incomprehensible and irritatingly stylised, whereas the former seemed to burst with life and humour. No wonder the term ‘Dickensian’ has always seemed more fun as a designation than ‘Shakespearean’. Perhaps there was a case, I thought, for extolling him as our new national writer.

He could never stop regarding himself as an outsider, the poor boy looking in on Victorian society in all of its glories and horrors

A few decades on, nobody would seriously try and make that argument. Shakespeare’s primacy is assured forever, both in terms of his work and his reputation. The relatively scant biographical details that we have about him  – Anne Hathaway and her cottage, the acting years in London, ‘the second-best bed’ – all combine to make him a jovial blank of sorts, onto whom we can project whatever political and social aspirations we want. In the case of Dickens, who died 150 years ago today, we are far better equipped to know about his life. Thanks to biographers such as Claire Tomalin, John Carey and, now, AN Wilson, it seems as if virtually every detail of his relatively brief existence (he died at 58) is in the public domain.

Certainly, Dickens himself was not shy about offering his increasingly rapacious public a (suitably sanitised) account of who and what he was. Unlike most of his privately educated peers, he came from an impoverished background, with his father often confined to a debtor’s prison and the young Dickens’ education interspersed with lengthy and humiliating stints working in a boot-blacking factory. This experience, which he wrote about in lightly fictionalised form in his most autobiographical novel David Copperfield, was a formative one, and traumatic. Even as he began his career, first as a legal clerk, then as a journalist and finally as a well-regarded novelist, he could never stop regarding himself as an outsider, the poor boy looking in on Victorian society in all of its glories and horrors. And perhaps society felt this, as well; notably, he was never knighted.

He soon became wealthy and famous. Oliver Twist, first serialised between 1837 and 1839, was a conspicuous success, and innovative, too: it was the first novel to be published in its era with a child as its protagonist, and its unsparing depiction of poverty and abuse established him as a writer with a developed social conscience. He swiftly followed it with many of his greatest and best-loved books – Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby – while establishing himself as a celebrity in America, at a time when crossing the Atlantic to sell one’s wares was looked down on as ‘not what a gentleman would do’. As he was liberated from the social strictures of the day by virtue of his humble background, he did not care for the criticism of his peers. He saw himself as a writer who wrote for his readers, and not for the establishment. That this was also very lucrative was an added bonus.

He was an energetic figure. Not only was his literary output prodigious – twenty novels, collections of stories and novellas in thirty-five years – but his books were often extremely long, written (some would say overwritten) to satisfy the demands of serialisation. He would then take to the stage, frustrated actor that he was, to perform these works at avidly awaited public events. At these, he would literally work himself into a stupor in the most dramatic parts of his stories, such as the prostitute Nancy’s murder by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. His methods of relaxation were equally vigorous; he was a great aficionado of what he termed his ‘fog and grog’, cigars and expensive wine. They no doubt contributed to his early death, along with the still-mysterious and traumatic circumstances in which the train he was travelling was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, barely escaping with both his life and the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. He spent the last few years of his life in a diminished and rather frightened state, with his final book The Mystery of Edwin Drood remaining unfinished at the time of his death. His last truly great novel, Great Expectations – for my money, his abiding masterpiece – had appeared between December 1860 and August 1861, and his once-prodigious output had shrunk down to a mere trickle by the end of the 1860s.

Today, Dickens’s reputation is a contradictory one. Politically and socially, he was a mixture of a liberal and a conservative, albeit very much with a small ‘c’. He railed against the Tories – ‘people whom, politically, I despise and abhor’ – but was sufficiently impressed by the standing and stature of the police force, newly formed by Robert Peel in the 1820s, to have himself sworn in as a special constable and to accompany them on their nocturnal raids, approvingly looking on as various malefactors had their heads bashed in. He even created one of the first fictional detectives, Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, in homage to these jolly adventures.

As a husband and father, he did not learn from his own miserable upbringing. He had a long affair with the actress Ellen ‘Nellie’ Tiernan, and indeed was with her at the time of the traumatic train crash; various biographers, most recently Wilson, have suggested that his eventual death was caused by a stroke in flagrante. He also treated his wife Catherine appallingly, even by the standards of the day. He seemed to be embarrassed by her, having married young and regretting his decision ever since he achieved fame. Before they eventually separated in 1858, he had attempted to have her declared insane and institutionalised, ludicrously claiming that the 10 children that she had borne him were somehow down to her feminine wiles rather than his strong sexual impulses. (In an apparently successful attempt not to have sex with her any more, Dickens forcibly cut the marital bed in two, and went so far as to build a bookcase through the middle of it.)

Yet one wonders if Dickens has in fact been redeemed in the eyes of the angry Left by what has traditionally been seen as his greatest controversy, namely the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist

He even wrote a largely fictitious press release claiming that accounts of his domestic disharmony were ‘abominably false’, and flew into a hysterical rage when Punch, then Britain’s most popular magazine, would not publish it, on the grounds that they may have been a humorous title but that their jokes tended to come from satire and buffoonery, not the most famous writer of the day penning a straight-faced bunch of lies. For a man as attuned to issues of irony and absurdity as Dickens undoubtedly was, he could be remarkably obtuse when it came to his public standing. One thinks of its 20th century counterpart, Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford issuing a press release in 1994 declaring their marriage to be wonderful and brilliant before separating the following year, to much ridicule.

Then, of course, there is the question of Dickens as racist and anti-Semite. In some regards, he was a proto-liberal, calling for slaves to be freed and for slavery to be abolished. No doubt today he would be a keen public supporter of Black Lives Matter. Privately, it was another matter. In letters to his friends, he railed against Indians as ‘low, murderous, treacherous, tigerous villains’, called for their extermination and cheered on the consequences of the Indian mutiny, applauding the ‘Hindoo’ being ‘blown from English guns’. As for the blacks he so publicly supported, he privately questioned the wisdom of their ever being given suffrage, writing as late as 1868 that the ‘melancholy absurdity’ of their being allowed to vote ‘would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads.’ These remarks are not commonly known, as if they were, there is little doubt that Dickens would be the latest of the dead white men of the Victorian era to be cancelled, and the statue of him that exists in Portsmouth would probably be torn down as well.

Yet one wonders if Dickens has in fact been redeemed in the eyes of the angry Left by what has traditionally been seen as his greatest controversy, namely the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Referred to constantly as ‘the Jew’, Fagin is a grotesque and anti-semitic caricature, much given to toasting sausages for the coterie of orphans who he keeps on hand to train in criminal practices. While a single man in charge of a roomful of pre-pubescent boys will invariably attract comment somewhere along the line, there have been suggestions that Dickens created a character with obvious paedophilic inclinations, and that he was little less than a slur upon an entire race and ethnicity. Although he features in one of the book’s greatest and most psychologically fascinating scenes – when he is in the condemned cell, awaiting hanging – Fagin is, to put it mildly, #problematic as far as most readers are concerned. Dickens realised this even in his own lifetime, taking pains to create a sympathetic Jewish character, Riah, in his late novel Our Mutual Friend, and toning down his more caricatured mannerisms and gesticulations while performing at his readings.

Today, thanks to actors such as Ben Kingsley, Anton Lesser and Timothy Spall interpreting Fagin on screen in a more naturalistic fashion, the character does not have the charge and ability to cause outrage that he once did. Yet there also remains the sense that, as we saw under Corbynism, those firebrands of the Left who are most keen to trumpet their inclusivity and right-on credentials are strangely quiet when it comes to defending the Jewish. The character of Fagin may be as well-written and memorable as any other figure in Dickens’s work, but he is also a deeply troubling portrayal of an entire section of society, and one that has been ostracised and persecuted for time immemorial. It was little surprise that the Nazis used images of Fagin in their propaganda as a representation of what ‘the Jew’ was capable of.

It would be wrong to judge Dickens’s life purely by his appalling treatment of his wife and his (fairly traditional) racist and xenophobic attitudes, just as it would be reductive to attempt to burn his books because of the nastiness and crudeness with which he depicted one major character. Instead, it seems likely that Dickens has been quietly replaced by Jane Austen as the major 19th century novelist who everyone can adore, even if some of the adaptations of her work have proved controversial and that is before her own depiction of the financial aspects of slavery in Mansfield Park. Yet he continues to be regarded as a major British novelist, as he should be, and the taint of racism and bigotry that, unfairly, has clung to Kipling is nowhere to be found with Dickens. One can only conclude from this that either his detractors are too lazy to read his books and writings – they are, after all, rather long – or simply that the possibility of his anti-semitism is not that big a deal for many people who would otherwise pride themselves on taking the cause of the oppressed. As Dickens himself might have written about this situation, ‘it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover