Michael Allen. Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory: Oxford-Stockley Publications: St. Leonards, 2011. Pp. 310. [pounds sterling]24.95.
For a novelist given to secrecy and burdened with memories of a past he worked hard to conceal, Dickens behaved inconsistently. According to John Forster, who knew him "better than any other man does, or ever will," hints and scraps of information emerged, orally and in writing no longer extant, about those aspects of his childhood Dickens found troubling. These revelations, communicated during the first decade of their friendship, gradually expanded, the degree of intimacy increasing to the point in November 1846 when Dickens made Forster an explicit offer: "Shall I leave you my life in MS. when I die? There are some things in it that would touch you very much, and that might go on the same shelf with the first volume of Holcroft's" (Letters 4: 653).
No record of Forster's response exists. But the proposal from Dickens must have set him thinking, both professionally and perhaps more searchingly about the nature of his friend's past. As the author of one biography (The Lives of Statesmen of the Commonwealth, 1840) committed to a second (The Life and Adventures of Oliver Goldsmith, 1848), the prospect of writing about Dickens surely crossed his mind, while the reference to Thomas Holcroft, whose Memoirs (1816) recount a youthful struggle with poverty, neglect and self-education, would have resounded with the little of Dickens's past Forster already knew.
Further conversation on these matters seems to have been suspended until February 1847. No precise timetable is possible, but we can infer that exchanges continued until by chance Forster asked Dickens in March if he ever remembered "the elder Mr. Dilke, his father's acquaintance and contemporary" and former clerk at Somerset House. An evasive "Yes" in reference to meeting Charles Wentworth Dilke at the house of a relative prompted Forster to push further, the point of which was to say that he had learned from Dilke of Dickens's "having had some juvenile employment in a warehouse near the Strand." Dickens responded by remaining silent "for several minutes," whereupon Forster concluded that he had unintentionally touched "a painful place in his memory" and resolved never to speak of it again (Life bk. 1, ch. 2). It was Dickens, however, who broke the silence a few weeks later. First orally in frequent interchanges and then in writing, a vivid account emerged of how he had been "so easily thrown away," a poor little lad at the age of ten.
The material Dickens supplied served Forster well, endowing his three-volume Life of Charles Dickens (1871-74) with a twofold legacy. By making use of the MS pages Dickens had left to him, Forster achieved an impact that may have surprised him. "Never, perhaps, has a fragment of biography wakened more interest and amazement than the first chapters of Mr. Forster's biography," wrote one reviewer of the first volume in February 1872, already in its ninth edition within months of its publication (Collins 579). Less conjectural is the enduring importance of his decision to supply "those passages [of Dickens's childhood] omitted from [David Copperfield], which, ... present to us a picture of tragical suffering, ... unsurpassed in even the wonders of his published writings" (Life bk. 1, ch. 2). By publishing "the fragment of the autobiography of Dickens" left to him and by augmenting it with recollections of conversations and letters, Forster laid the foundation for his own Life. Doing so, he also provided the keystone to every biographical study published since. "The story of Charles Dickens' childhood is dominated by a single narrative, mostly written down by Dickens himself, then edited, arranged, and supplemented by John Forster," writes Michael Allen. Over the history of his own childhood and of his time at Warren's Blacking, he continues, Dickens "exercised supreme control. …