Magazine article The Spectator

The Curse of Unresisting Adoration

Magazine article The Spectator

The Curse of Unresisting Adoration

Article excerpt

THE LETTERS OF CHARLES DICKENS, VOLUME XII, 1868-1870 edited by Graham Storey, Margaret Brown and Kathleen Tillotson Oxford University Press, 80, pp. 856, ISBN 0199245967

After Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, there is every reason to suppose that Dickens was essentially done. After the publication of that magnificent novel in 1864-5, his fiction takes on the quality of an afterword; it is as if he knew what we know, that with Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend he had written what may plausibly be considered the four greatest novels in the English language, and that was enough. In the five years before his death in 1870, his fiction is fitfully dazzling, but the old blaze has gone. The only really indispensable thing from this last period is a magnificent short story, `George Silverman's Explanation'; the novel he was publishing when he died, however, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, looks to me like the only real disappointment among all his novels.

Edwin Drood has been endlessly gone over in a speculative way, and been the unconsenting victim of some horrid attempts at completion. The discussion is, however, all on the level of `Who is Datchery?' (My money is on Rosa Bud, ghastly girl.) It does ignore the startling thing about Edwin Drood; by Dickens's standards, it is really not very good.

There are, of course, magnificent things in it. The opening chapter, of Jasper's awakening after an all-night session in an opium den in a cathedral town is astonishing. Even if it seems wildly improbable - it is difficult to see what on earth would have drawn the comatose 'Chinaman' to Cloisterham, for instance - the phantasmagoria of East and West, of sultans and cathedral towers dancing together as the drugged delirium fades is extraordinarily powerful, and something quite new in Dickens. But after that, there is a sense of creative exhaustion. The names are terribly first-stab - Rosa Bud, and Miss Twinkleton, and (what was he thinking of?) Crisparkle. The limp borrowings from Thackeray, Collins and, amazingly - it's unimaginable that Dickens could have reached the point where he needed to borrow from such a boring grinder - Trollope. The automatic present tense worked before, but here it just looks like a flimsy old device, which isn't going to make flatly routine writing vivid or immediate. There are knackered old jokes dug up from Pickwick - Sapsea's wife's epitaph was once a good joke, but by the time Dickens has put it in six separate novels and plonked it down here in a completely random place, it is like listening to a German explaining the one about the penguin in a bar. It is the one real disappointment among the novels. Something has gone.

The explanation for the abrupt collapse after the inexhaustibly fecund fantasy of Our Mutual Friend is to be found in this final volume of Dickens's letters. From one point of view, this volume is less absorbing than its 11 predecessors; there is not that much of Dickens the raconteur and wit here, and much less of the idle, casually brilliant correspondent which made previous volumes in this great enterprise such a delight. There is, too, one big hole, of which more later. But in another way the letters from the very end of Dickens's life are inadvertently telling. They are the letters of a man working himself into an early grave.

A large number of the letters here are supremely trivial, but that in itself is suggestive. There are huge numbers of thankyou letters, three charming sentences. There are a lot of letters refusing requests, honours, invitations - Dickens authorised his staff at All the Year Round to refuse most solicitations, but an amazing number had to be dealt with directly, whether the absurd invitation to stand for parliament, or the earnest entreaties of sponging nephews to turn up at the funerals of inlaws he'd never met. And there are a very large number of letters of this sort, on 9 February 1870, to Charles Kent: `My dear Kent, Say at half past 2, Ever affcy, CD. …

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