Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Jane Smiley is an essayist, scholar and fan of legendary writer, Charles Dickens. In 2002, Smiley wrote Charles Dickens: A Life, a contemporary biography and analysis of how Charles Dickens' life influenced his characters and literary works. Read a special excerpt from the beginning of her book and begin to see Dickens in a new light.
Charles Dickens was a public man and a famous man, and he assumed both of these slightly different roles in his early twenties. His first sketch, "A Dinner at Poplar Walk," was published in the Monthly Magazine in December 1833. Dickens, born on February 7, 1812, was only twenty-one, but because of his work as a parliamentary reporter (he had taught himself shorthand and was able to take down speeches word for word), he was already familiar with seeing his name in print. Nevertheless, he related later that "I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half an hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen there." Further sketches published in monthly and weekly magazines over the following months attracted considerable notice, and when Sketches by Boz appeared in volume form in February and December 1836, they were well reviewed. What everyone, including Dickens himself, considered especially remarkable was their breadth of scope, and in particular the variety of lower-class characters and scenes depicted, perhaps a first in English literature. One reviewer called them "a perfect picture of the morals, manners, and habits of a great portion of English Society."
At only twenty-four, Dickens found himself in an advantageous authorial position—he was invited to contribute the text for a series of sporting engravings to be published by the firm of Chapman and Hall. They offered Dickens £14 per month (it is impossible to know exactly what this would be equivalent to in modern dollars, but it is useful to multiply any Dickensian sum by 35, which would make his fee about $500). The artist, Robert Seymour, was successful and famous, and it was he who was supposed to take the lead in conceiving and guiding the collaboration. The arrangement lasted two months, until Seymour committed suicide. In even this short a time, though, Dickens was able to assert his own resolve that he should direct the project, and by the time another artist, Hablot Browne, was hired, Dickens had gotten himself a raise, increased the proportion of the writing to the illustrations, and turned the whole endeavor into The Pickwick Papers, which was destined to become a publishing phenomenon.
The Pickwick Papers was published between March 1836 and November 1837. From that time to the end of his life, Charles Dickens was a figure of whom everyone had something to say, so it is appropriate to take a look at him upon his first real entrance into the condition of celebrity. First and foremost, friends and acquaintances noted his lively presence, his charm, his good looks, and his colorful style of dress. Though rather short, and even slight, Dickens was extremely straight in his bearing, and his friend and future biographer John Forster recalled "the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook...Light and motion flashed from every part of it." Forster asserted that humor, "habitual, unbounded, and resistless," was his most essential characteristic, but everyone he knew expressed astonishment at Dickens's level of activity, whether the object of that activity was work, games, exercise, amateur acting and play production, charitable projects, or anything else. He was good company and he loved all sociable amusements. He later commented that at this time of his life he was going out to the theater sometimes every night of the week—not only to see the more respectable offerings at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, but to any and all sorts of shows, spectacles, pageants, and performances. Himself adept at declaiming, singing, and performing, he was invited everywhere and participated fully in all forms of the social life of the time—parties and "at homes," nights on the town with groups of male friends, dinners, jaunts, impromptu adventures. Already, though, observers were finding something uncanny about his manner. As astute as he was charming, he often gave people the sense that they were being "scanned" from top to bottom. Extant portraits and photographs certainly fail to reveal the Dickens that his contemporaries knew, especially in the early years, since for various technical reasons subjects were never pictured or photographed smiling. It is especially important, therefore, to be mindful that what the twenty-first century is able to see of Dickens is the merest brittle shell of how he appeared to those around him.