Going Mad for Charles Dickens

Two centuries after his birth, the novelist is still wildly popular, as a theme park, a new movie and countless festivals attest

Dickens World, a theme park in Chatham, offers an 1800s immersion. The novelist, says the attraction's Kevin Christie, "was a showman. He would have loved this." (Stuart Conway)
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When Dickens World opened, it ignited a fierce debate. Did the park trivialize the great man? A critic for the Guardian scoffed that Dickens World perpetrated a “taming of the wildness and fierceness of Dickens” and had replaced his dark, violent London with a “Disney-on-Sea instead, a nice, safe, cosy world where nothing bad occurs.” Florian Schweizer of the Dickens Museum has a mixed response: “They’ve done a good job for their audience,” he told me. “If that means, in a generation or two, people will go back and say, ‘My first memory of Dickens was Dickens World, and I got hooked,’ then great. If people say, ‘I remember this, and never touched a Dickens novel,’ then it hasn’t worked.” But Kevin Christie, a former producer for 20th Century Fox who worked with conceptual architect Gerry O’Sullivan-Beare to create Dickens World, told me that “Dickens was a showman of the first order, and I think he would have loved this.”

By the time Dickens published Great Expectations in 1861, his public and private lives had diverged. The literary world lionized him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who attended one of Dickens’ readings in Boston, called his genius “a fearful locomotive.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who had read David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers in prison, paid the novelist an admiring visit in London in 1862. Mark Twain marveled at “the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them.”

Dickens had a large, wide-ranging circle of friends; founded and edited magazines and newspapers; traveled widely in Europe; walked ten miles or more a day through London; wrote dozens of letters every afternoon; and somehow found the time, with Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of England’s wealthiest women, to create and administer for a decade the Home for Homeless Women, a shelter for prostitutes in London’s East End.

Dickens’ domestic life, however, had become increasingly unhappy. He had fathered ten children with Catherine, micromanaged their lives and pushed all to succeed, but one by one, they fell short of his expectations. “Dickens had more energy than anyone in the world, and he expected his sons to be like him, and they couldn’t be,” Claire Tomalin tells me. The eldest, Charles, his favorite, failed in one business venture after another; other sons floundered, got into debt and, like Martin Chuzzlewit, escaped abroad, to Australia, India, Canada, often at their father’s urging.

“He had a fear that the genetic traits—the lassitude in Catherine’s family, the fecklessness and dishonesty in his own—would be [passed down to his sons],” says Tomalin.

On a clear autumn afternoon, the biographer and I stroll a muddy path beside the Thames, in Petersham, Surrey, a few miles west of London. Dickens craved escape from London into the countryside and, before he moved permanently to rural Kent in 1857, he, Catherine, their children and numerous friends—especially John Forster—vacationed in rented properties in Surrey.

Dickens also had grown alienated from his wife. “Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it,” he wrote to Forster in 1857. Shortly afterward, Dickens ordered a partition built down the center of their bedroom. Soon, the novelist would commence a discreet relationship with Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, an 18-year-old actress he had met when he produced a play in Manchester (see below). Coldly rejecting his wife of 20 years and denouncing her in the press, Dickens lost friends, angered his children and drew inward. His daughter Katey told a friend that her father “did not understand women” and that “any marriage he made would have been a failure.” In The Invisible Woman, a biography of Ternan published two decades ago, Tomalin produced persuasive evidence that Dickens and Ternan secretly had a child who died in infancy in France. The claim challenged an alternative interpretation by the Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, who insisted—as do some Dickensians—that the relationship remained chaste.

On my last day in England, I took the train to Higham, a village near Rochester, in North Kent, and walked a steep mile or so to Gad’s Hill Place, where Dickens spent the last dozen years of his life. The red-brick Georgian house, built in 1780 and facing a road that was, in Dickens’ time, the carriage route to London, is backed by 26 acres of rolling hills and meadows. Dickens bought the property in 1856 for £1,790 (the equivalent of about £1.5 million, or $2.4 million today) and moved here the following year, just before the end of his marriage and the ensuing scandal in London. He was immersed in writing Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, rich, dense works that expose a variety of social ills and portray London as a cesspool of corruption and poverty. Dickens’ art reached new heights of satire and psychological complexity. He crammed his works with twisted characters such as Mr. Merdle of Little Dorrit, who, admired by London society until his Madoff-style Ponzi scheme collapses, commits suicide rather than face up to his disgrace, and Our Mutual Friend’s Bradley Headstone, a pauper turned schoolteacher who falls violently in love with Lizzie Hexam, develops a murderous jealousy toward her suitor and stalks him at night like an “ill-tamed wild animal.”

Gad’s Hill Place, which has housed a private school since it was sold by Dickens’ family during the 1920s, offers a well-preserved sense of Dickens’ later life. Sally Hergest, administrator for Dickens heritage programs at the property, takes me into the garden, pointing out a tunnel that led to Dickens’ reproduction Swiss chalet across the road. A gift from his friend, the actor Charles Fechter, the prefab structure was shipped from London in 96 crates and lugged uphill from Higham Station. It became his summer writing cottage. (The relocated chalet now stands on the grounds of Eastgate House in Rochester.) We continue into the main house and Dickens’ study, preserved as it was when he worked there. Propped in the hallway just outside are the tombstones from Dickens’ pet cemetery, including one for the beloved canary to whom Dickens fed a thimbleful of sherry each morning: “This is the grave of Dick, the best of birds. Died at Gad’s Hill Place, Fourteenth October 1866.”

The last years were an ordeal for Dickens. Plagued by gout, rheumatism and vascular problems, he was often in pain and unable to walk. His productivity waned. Nelly Ternan was a comforting presence at Gad’s Hill Place during this period, introduced to guests as a friend of the family. For the most part, though, she and Dickens carried on their relationship in secret locales in the London suburbs and abroad. “I think he enjoyed the false names, false addresses, like something out of his novels,” says Tomalin. “I speculate that they sat down and laughed about it, [wondering] what did the neighbors, the servants think?” Returning from a trip to Europe in June 1865, their train derailed near Staplehurst, England, killing ten passengers and injuring 40, including Ternan. Dickens was acclaimed as a hero for rescuing several passengers and ministering to the casualties, but the incident left him badly shaken.


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