Oh my god, you guys, this book.
The Charles Dickens in Love bio is 390 pages, not counting end notes and index. It could EASILY have been a longish New Yorker article. Peter Ackroyd’s bio is at least a gabillion pages long, but I didn’t feel it.
Garnett leaves no point un-repeated — sometimes within the same paragraph. Again and again he’ll remind us that Maria Beadness was the first, fiery, sexual love, and that Mary Hogarth was the chaste, virginal, lasting love. He then does this very curious thing: he begins by saying, “We don’t know if Charles and Ellen had a child together.” But then, to make the rest of his belaborings not seem wasted, he just decides that yes, of course, they did have a baby. (This is all based on “reading between the lines” of Dickens’s journals and letters. I’m not saying that it’s entirely unlikely; maybe I’m just cranky with this guy for later stuff, so I’m busting his chops about this particular point. What makes me allow some doubt about a baby is this: Dickens was TERRIBLE at keeping this affair a secret, pretty much EVERYONE knew about it, and I can’t see him keeping the birth of a son close to the chest at all.)
Garnett is also incredibly unkind about Catherine. Look, okay, sure: Catherine Dickens put on some weight because she’s a human being Going Through Some Things and WE GET IT. She had 10 kids and at least two miscarriages. She was saddled with Charles Dickens as a husband — a husband who, by the way and p.s.: only married her because Maria Beadnell broke his heart and her younger sister Mary was too young. I mean, couldn’t it be possible that Catherine was just PROFOUNDLY depressed? So why you gotta be a dick, Robert Garnett, with your “Catherine’s reckless fecundity” this, and your “overly prolific wife” that, and going on about her stoutness and unattractiveness (even quoting someone ELSE: “Repeated pregnancies were exhausting Catherine’s sexual role, and lacking the personality to keep her in favour with Dickens, she had no other.”) and for FUCK’S SAKE, where is CHUCK in all of this? It’s like we’re all just supposed to conveniently forget that women had about thismuch reproductive agency in the nineteenth century and just blame poor Catherine for having a uterus.
I mean SERIOUSLY.
Anyway. He also keeps talking about Wilkie Collins’s “mistress” — a term I have specific rules about and for it to work, at least one of the two individuals involved need to be married and neither Wilkie Collins nor either of his two lady-friends were ever married. (Well, Caroline did leave him for a brief period and got married, but then she divorced that guy and came back and that’s a weird episode in Collins’s life because it’s likely that Caroline was playing a game of emotional chicken with Collins, only she lost, because dude did not want to be married.)
I liberally skipped a significant chunk of the last 100 pages of Charles Dickens in Love because OH MY GOD I CAN’T CARE ABOUT HOW MANY TRAINS HE TOOK.”
Oh! Oh! Oh! AND: later in the bio– WAIT. Before I get to that, let’s go back to the pregnancy thing for a moment because here’s where all those fucking TRAINS make an appearance. This guy has very carefully looked at old train schedules and tracked them with Dickens’s post-marks and references in his letters and this is the kind of shit that happened in that movie about the Torah guys: I DON’T NEED TO SEE THE WORK. Just, you know, give me the conclusions. And I suppose that there are some people out there who are just fascinated by that kind of minutia — the kind of people who thought Driving Miss Daisy was an action-filled adventure picture, no doubt. Those people are none of my business.
So, later in the bio– Sorry. I have another quick point about Ellen Ternan. She’s a cipher. We don’t have any of her letters or her diaries or anything. She shows up in Dickens’s letters, and other people write about her, so she’s more of a character than an actual person. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about that. But she just felt so lifeless and inert in this bio; she felt like a movable object, a chess piece, not a human being. And interestingly, Garnett never mentions that Ternan is alleged to have said, about her time with Dickens, “I so loathed the old man’s touch.” (Because it would interfere with his thesis, maybe? About how important this love was to Dickens? And maybe he feels like it would be too heartbreaking to discover that the love of his life loathed him?)
NOW, the other thing: Later in the bio, Garnett brings up this FASCINATING lady named Frances Dickinson. He says that during one of her divorce proceedings (she had a slew of divorces), the judge stopped the proceedings because he felt that the whole thing was too disgusting to talk about in court. (She also talked often of her love of wigs and I know that this may not be the thing that makes you sit up and take notice but I’m a homosexual and a crazy divorcee talking about wigs? HEAVEN.) Anyway, Garnett decides that’s all we need to know about her and doesn’t even give us a HINT about the disgusting divorce proceedings and I just think he could THROW ME A BONE HERE, Garnett.
Anyway. Ugh. I’m glad I got that off my chest.