We are asked by Peter Ackroyd, a biographer not only of Charles Dickens but of London too, to contemplate the novelist unbuttoned, in peep-show dishabille. As impersonated for three hours by Anton Lesser, who more resembles Edgar Allan Poe, this Dickens (Wednesday, December 17; 8 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) explains himself by quoting liberally from his own letters and journals. He has sorrows (the death of Dora, his baby daughter), secrets (a father sent to debtors’ prison, a mother who didn’t love him enough, a boyhood stint in a blacking factory), and a mistress (actress Ellen Ternan)—all of them inflecting his fiction. Which fiction obligingly appears to us in fraught snippets from the many movies it has inspired, between computer-enhanced re-creations of a spectral Victorian cityscape. So the screen is crowded while the mind drifts.
We get Timothy West and Prunella Scales as Charles’s parents, Miriam Margolyes as Catherine, the sad-sack wife he banished from their home after 22 years of marriage, Natasha Little as Ellen Ternan, the gorgeous rationale of that banishment, and Geoffrey Palmer as William Thackeray, also in the fiction-writing racket. Dickens follows the boy who emerged from the factory determined to become wealthy, famous, and, like David Copperfield, “the hero of my own life”; the apprentice troublemaker whose inquiries into child labor, prostitution, workhouse conditions, and a corrupt judiciary inspired more social reforms in dark satanic England than the nineteenth-century Chartists or the twentieth-century Fabians; and the mature novelist whose 2,000 characters—among them Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, Miss Havisham, Mme. Defarge, and Pip—go on strutting and fretting in our heads long after their author gave up trying to make sense of his personal life.
The trouble, of course, is that the life, no matter how traumatic, never explains the work, if the work is any good. W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Doris Lessing, and Saul Bellow variously believed in faeries, funny money, flying saucers, and orgone energy accumulation, but so have millions of other people who never got around to writing even a mediocre poem or novel. Dickens implies that the theme of unrequited love in Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend suggests something important about the writer’s relationship with the actress. Maybe so. (Psychosexual critics go even further, finding in the character of Estella a shadowy ambivalence about gender itself. Dickens in drag!) Still, unrequited love is on sale cheap, by the gross. Not so, enduring novels.
Novels, moreover, we all grew up reading back when children could be counted on, after the age of 6, to want to read. Such childhood enthusiasm ensured that the novelist later on would have to be punished with our indulgent contempt, before we eventually realized that our loftiness was more contemptible than his confusions. It was ever thus: A visit to The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation is a long day’s journey into gripe, from Thackeray and Henry James to E. M. Forster and André Gide to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. According to George Meredith, “If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in him.” George Bernard Shaw was moved to smirk: “All the political futility which has forced men of the calibre of Mussolini, Kemal, and Hitler to assume dictatorship might have been saved if people had only believed what Dickens told them in Little Dorrit.” And George Eliot, who should have attended more to the winter rage, spoke of “poor Dickens” and his “melancholy” latter years “in the feverish pursuit of loud effects and money.”