Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Roads Not Taken: For Charles Dickens, Whose Bicentenary Is Inspiring New Interest, Writing Fiction Was a Way of Reaching into the Unknown-Of Imagining Lives That Might Have Been His Own

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Roads Not Taken: For Charles Dickens, Whose Bicentenary Is Inspiring New Interest, Writing Fiction Was a Way of Reaching into the Unknown-Of Imagining Lives That Might Have Been His Own

Article excerpt

One of London's free newspapers used to contain a column, under the come-hither heading "Lovestruck: Change Your Fate", in which commuters could record their romantic near misses. Part valentine and part message in a bottle, each of these little confessions allowed the writer to speak up without fear of public rejection, and the result was a welling-up of fantasies usually hidden behind the sports pages. "You were on the 8.35 from Balham to Victoria on Tuesday wearing glasses with a scar above your eye. Drink?" enquires Blonde in Green Dress. "To the lady sitting on the 18.05 from Victoria to Lewes, I think I may be falling in love with you," confesses Man Opposite. Rarely has the line between talking and stalking been so delicately smudged.

As in other attempts to restore the genteel eroticism of Brief Encounter to modern public transport, it is fitting that most of the scenarios involve a train. This might reflect a more general temptation to use the blank expressions of strangers as screens on to which private dreams can be projected, but it also reflects a common resistance to the idea that our lives trundle along a set of tracks as predictably as the 18.05 from Victoria. To confess that you might be falling in love with a fellow passenger opens up an alternative future, a shiny new timeline, into which your imagination can be shunted for a few moments.

The roads not taken, the parallel worlds in which things happened otherwise--such thoughts are not restricted to a particular genre. They are as integral to the optimistic melodrama of It's a Wonderful Life as they are to the tragic realisation of Marlon Brando's washed-up boxer in On the Waterfront that "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody." Nor are they unfamiliar in literature.

"Mugby Junction", a Christmas story that Charles Dickens published in December 1866, opens with a traveller passing through an imaginary railway station. A "shadowy train" goes by him in the gloom and it rapidly becomes clear that this is an image of his life. The survivor of an unhappy childhood, who is later "coupled to" a miserable career, he drags his past behind him like a set of grimy freight wagons. As the story develops, Dickens's hero comes to realise that even the longest train is not doomed to travel in the same direction for ever. Gazing at the junction from above, he observes the "wonderful ways" in which the railway lines cross and curve among one another, or veer off unexpectedly, or double back on themselves. By accepting that human life works in a similar way, he discovers that he is free to travel in any number of directions. The "gentleman for Nowhere", as he is known around the station, becomes the gentleman for everywhere.

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Such uncertainty has rarely been acknowledged by biographers. Most lives are full of clutter and confusion; every day brings a lesson in how easily planning can be mastered by contingency. Biography, on the other hand, usually seems less concerned with reflecting a subject's life than with redeeming its inadequacies. It tidies up the shapeless business of living into a story with a beginning, middle and end; it removes background hiss and crackle until a single tune can be traced across the years.

While a biography might acknowledge occasional detours from the main narrative--here a failed love affair, there an abandoned draft--most sentences are arrows that fly straight and true until they hit the full stop with a satisfying thwack. There is little room for the kinds of repetition, hesitation or deviation that Radio 4's Just a Minute bans but that most real lives specialise in.

Dickens was aware of the temptation to view life in this way--on one occasion, he sympathetically observed an inmate of a lunatic asylum in Lancaster as he stared at a piece of matting, trying to find a pattern in its fibres--but it hardly reflects the course of his own career. …

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