Catherine Dickens gave birth to Charles junior on January 2, 1837, and in April the couple moved out of their rooms into a house. Then, on May 7, after an illness of only a few days, seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth died suddenly. She died in Dickens's arms, and he was so undone by the loss that he had to put off completing the installment of The Pickwick Papers that he was working on. He wore one of her rings on his finger for the rest of his life and kept a lock of her hair and her clothes. When, five years later, one of her brothers died and was buried with her, Dickens wrote that "the thought of being excluded from her dust" was like "losing her a second time." Over the course of the next thirty years, he thought of her constantly and did not think that the influence of her spirit over him could be exaggerated. She is often said to have inspired several of Dickens's female characters of a certain type, of which Agnes, in David Copperfield, is an example— virtuous, compliant, and virginal, voiceless in a sense, and almost always too good for this world. Catherine could never take her place or fill, by herself, the two roles that Dickens needed filled by the women in his life.

The Pickwick Papers is not a book that holds much appeal for the modern reader. Episodic sporting adventures, however, were quite popular at the time, and a large part of their appeal was in the accompanying illustrations. The "novel" has the looseness and digressiveness of many eighteenth-century works like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, both of which Dickens admired. Dickens had not at that point developed his particular social vision, especially the darker, angrier parts of it, and his style, though already distinct, does not have the incandescent and concentrated ironic power that he achieved in later works. What he does have, full grown, and what readers noticed almost at once, is that facility in drawing characters that are not only entertaining but unique. An early example is Alfred Jingle, who joins Pickwick's party of friends and at first seems benign enough. His characteristic mode of expression is a sort of word-association utterance of disjointed cant phrases: "Splendid—capital. Kent, sir—everybody knows Kent—apples, cherries, hops, and women. Glass of wine, sir?" And a few moments later: "'Beg your pardon, sir,' said the stranger, 'bottle stands—pass it round—way of the sun—through the button-hole—no heeltaps.'" The Pickwickians are deceived by Jingle's bonhomie and apparent savoir faire, until he attempts to elope with the sister of their host. Only when he is being bought off by the man's lawyer does he speak in coherent sentences. When the lawyer suggests that £50 is a "good round sum—a man like you could treble it in no time— great deal to be done with fifty pounds, my dear sir," Jingle has no trouble responding "coolly," "More to be done with a hundred and fifty." Jingle's mode of expression is funny in itself, partly because it is mechanical and repetitive in rhythm and partly because the associated phrases are unexpected, and the shift to a more normal speech pattern reveals and underscores Jingle's duplicity. This is the absolute heart of Charles Dickens's idiosyncratic genius: what Jingle communicates to the reader, and what Dickens communicates through him, accumulates meanings and layers with every piece of dialogue and is simultaneously interesting and economical. And Jingle's style stands in contrast with the narrator's and the Pickwickians' more discursive manner, adding yet another layer.

Throughout his life, Dickens had a superb talent for mimicry, for speaking in voices, that almost amounted to allowing the voices all around him to speak through him. It was a talent he cultivated, but also himself marveled at, telling Forster that his characters came to him and spoke through him. David Lodge, one of the foremost comic novelists of our own day, and an experienced theorist, has written in After Bakhtin that the only way successfully to come to terms with the variety and scope of the novel is through analyzing it as a chorus of individual voices speaking in varying styles and tones, rather than as a single rhetorical expression. This is certainly true of Dickens as much as or more than any other novelist. But it is important to remember, too, that all of these voices are filtered through Dickens's consciousness, that every character is Dickens, whoever happened to be the original inspiration. Otherwise it is impossible to come to any comprehension of the variety, and variability, of the man himself.

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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