The dark side of Dickens’ genius
Charles Dickens, who died 150 years ago, was loved for storytelling that embraced justice, compassion and redemption. He was also a brute to his loyal wife. The author of a new biography suggests that great holiness and artistic genius might both be sometimes driven by a divided personality
There is an old ballad in Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, in which twin brothers are separated at birth. One boy, Valentine, is taken to the court of King Pepin and becomes a model of knightly chivalry. The other boy, Orson, or Ursine, or the bearlike one, grows up in the woods, is cared for by bears and becomes a wild thing.
In the version in Percy’s Reliques, Valentine comes upon his hairy, wild brother and tames him, but the story is popular in folk tale, and is of course a parable of the divided self. It used to obsess that very divided self Charles Dickens, who alludes to the story of Valentine and Orson over and over again.
Born so soon after his sister Fanny to a young, pleasure-loving mother, Dickens felt unwanted long before she insisted on his going out to work for six or seven shillings a week at the age of 12. Dickens’ hatred of the woman he had been programmed by nature to love, his mother, was the defining fact of his entire life and, of course, it is a wonderful recipe for a great creative dramatist or novelist. Dickens’ good and evil selves were scarefully compartmentalised and fictionalised and almost certainly he was scarcely aware of them. Woe betide the composed, or integrated, self who tries to form a relationship with such a person!
Being a great creative artist is different from being a saint, but the imaginative life and the spiritual life often run along similar lines. And the jolt of discovering flaws in our favourite artists’ or writers’ personal lives is comparable to our disillusionment when great spiritual leaders are found to have feet of clay.
In February, Maggie Fergusson wrote movingly in The Tablet about the devastation of soul brought to her, and to so many others, by the posthumous revelations about Jean Vanier. The saintly founder of L’Arche was shown up as a sexual predator. Quite apart from the personal disillusionment brought about by this particular discovery, it was painful, as it seemed to be yet another hammer blow to those of us who like to believe there are exceptionally good people in our mid, people whose lives ennoble and elevate us. Similar horror was felt among those who had revered Peter Ball, an Anglican who founded a religious order, and who did work in Birmingham inspired by the example of Fr Mario Borelli in Naples, rescuing children whose lives had seemed without hope, and setting them on to the path of apprenticeships, an education, a decent life.
No wonder Prince Charles, whose own Trust has been a force for good among underprivileged people, befriended Ball and thought he was a saint. At Rugby School, he often came to preach and I would watch the Rugger hearties, who normally yawned their way through sermons, blubbing freely as he told them how he had found Christ among the poor of Birmingham. I am sure this wasn’t play-acting. Yet, when Ball was brought to trial, he was revealed to have been a serial abuser of boys and young men. His victims had scarred lives that had slithered into depression, self-hatred, even suicide.
Moliere’s Tartuffe comes to mind when you think of these examples, but it does so wrongly. Tartuffe, like Chaucer’s Pardoner, is an out-and-out hypocrite who pretends to be holy while actually being a villain. The flawed, heart-breaking story of Jean Vanier, or of Peter Ball, is the story of divided souls. The extraordinary good achieved by both men was not some elaborate charade, adopted to trick us. Rather, we must believe, the spiritual energy that inspired one part of their nature to the greatest virtue was able to be diverted, perverted. Possibly – I do not know enough about either man to know if this is true – they developed some mechanism for keeping the two sides of their lives, the light and the dark, in such separate compartments that they were scarcely aware of what they were doing.
I became aware of this when I was writing about Charles Dickens, the 150th anniversary of whose death occurs on Tuesday. Dickens was popular on a level that no writer had ever been popular. His public readings were the Victorian equivalents of pop concerts. And his annual reminder, in A Christmas Carol, of the centrality in life of Christian love, called his readers back, again and again, to the realisation that we should and could be better people if we only heeded the message of his books. His life had spanned the period when many people had lost the knack of religious belief. Dickens’ un-theological, non-denominational celebration of Christian love came as close as many Victorians felt able to an acceptance of Christianity.
No wonder, then, that when the story of Dickens’ domestic life began to unfold, in the half-century after his death, there was a simple refusal to believe it. Even in his lifetime, of course, the very public nature of his separation from his wife had caused grief to the fans. But the fans were able to disguise from themselves the obvious cruelty and nastiness with which he wrote about Catherine. They wanted Dickens to be as cosy, as innocent, as merry as Christmas itself.
His daughter Katey wrote an autobiography which she then destroyed, but she told the story of Dickens’ double life, of his secret affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan, and of the extraordinary lengths he went to to conceal the truth from his public, to her friend Gladys Storey. Storey published her book Dickens and Daughter on the eve of the Second World War. Even after it had been published, and even after the discovery in New York of an engagement diary which Dickens had mislaid, giving details of his weekly visits to his mistress, the great majority of Dickens fans did not want to know. It was really only when Claire Tomalin published The Invisible Woman, her biography of Ternan, in 1990, based substantially on Storey’s book, that the truth dawned. Dickens, the great visionary novelist and celebrant of Christian agape, was a monster. Only last year, new evidence came to light that, not content with dumping his wife, and forcing his children to cut her, he actually tried to have poor Catherine certified and put away in an asylum.
In my book The Mystery of Charles Dickens, I explore the theme of his divided self. It is something which goes to the very heart of his inner, imaginative, life as a writer. No one, of course, ever believed Dickens was a saint, as people believed Jean Vanier to be a saint. But some of the same psychological process is observable in those who hero-worshipped Vanier as could be seen in those who wished to blind themselves to the darker Dickens: a coarse-grained, cruel persecutor of a loyal wife who had born him 10 children; a campaigner for social justice, on the one hand, who also wanted tougher, crueller prisons, on the other; the founder of a house of reform for women, who almost certainly visited prostitutes.
The concept of the “False Self” was introduced to psychoanalysis by Donald Winnicott in 1960, but versions of it had been around before that. Winnicott believed that the happy baby, confident in its parents’ love, learns the simple art of being, being itself, just by enjoying the dawning sensation of being alive, whereas the badly parented child has to develop a carapace, has to learn to be a false self in order, usually unsuccessfully, to please its parents. Such False Selves often grow up to become cruel and controlling people, incapable of making their own partners or children happy.
Charles Dickens certainly would appear to be a textbook case of the False Self, and we can only be grateful that there was no Donald Winnicott in existence, as Dickens began to make sense of his experience in youth or young manhood, who would have been able to destroy his art by successful therapy.
Many who have aspired to lead a high spiritual life, who are drawn not just to Christian belief but to the call to sainthood, are recognisably possessed of the False Self. The hidden self is a wounded, unwanted, unloved child. The “false” self is an invention. Hence so many great actors, writers and imaginative artists, who come into this category; but also those who would wish to put their darker self into a hidden place and become a saint. I think if we submitted many of the saints to psychoanalysis, the therapist might have identified their “false self” and also destroyed what it was which made them into saints. In a similar way, had Dickens been psychoanalysed at the beginning of his career, he might have been a great journalist, but by becoming aware of his False Self, he would have lost the visionary capacity to project his inner demons into the greatest of nineteenth-century fictions.
A.N. Wilson is a biographer, novelist, journalist and essayist. The Mystery of Charles Dickens (Atlantic Books, £17.99; Tablet price, £16.19) is published this month.