A friend is reading A. N. Wilson, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. He is finding it “delicious,” but knows nothing about the subject. Have you read it? Any thoughts? Wilson is often controversial, is he not?from an email Steve sent me last night
Oh boy. A.N. Wilson. [takes a long drag off a candy cigarette] That’s a name I thought I’d left far behind me.
Because sometimes the long way is the best way I’ll just ramble before arriving at the point. My first Wilson was The Victorians, which I bought in the early 2000s, because I was beginning my fascination with the era. (And I am not sure if you know this story or not, but all of this [gestures at my shelves of 19th century history and sociology] began with an impulse purchase of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. First off, the author’s name was ridiculous, as if someone were trying to parody a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta or introduce a landlord character into the Hundred Acre Wood. The title was also very intriguing: were there other colors she looked at in the morning? Did she know the night before that, before buying the flowers for herself, she would wear something in a white? Was it actual white, or an off-white? Was it ivory? Shades of vanilla? So much depends, etc. etc. Anyway, the opening line of The Woman in White sold me entirely: This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve. And then, when I looked up the author, expecting him to be swallowed in high collars and I don’t know, the son of a vicar or a boatswain — something that sounded really English — instead I saw a small toad of a man, with a bulging forehead, a very necessary beard, and a delightfully perverted story. This revelation ran so counter to my $200-level-question-on-Jeopardy! understanding of the 19th century, which I was assured was filled with moral prigs only doing right and it was exhausting, that I bought a biography of Collins (by Catherine Peters), read about how counter-culture his life was (two separate households with two women whom he didn’t want to marry but whom he deeply loved), and thought, “Wait a minute.” And then I started reading deeper into that hundred-something-year period and reached my absolutely facile theory of Performed vs Lived morality.) It was large, which felt right to me: I wanted something with a lot of pages because, like McTeague, quantity equaled value. (In McTeague, the title character buys a painting with a lot of figures in it because he feels like he’s getting more than his money’s worth.) And I read…a lot of it. I haven’t finished it. It’s 20 years later and my bookmark is still somewhere around the half-way mark. I found other books, better books; and also realized that biography was actually a more informative way to understand particular eras — because what became very clear to me is that we can’t look at the 19th century as a single thing. (Well, now, writing that I want to hedge a little: there is something to a 19th century novel that is sort of Platonic (I used that right, right?); but — and now I’m back to my original “all 19th century novels are not the same” point: novels coming out of the 1830s are vastly different than those in the 1850s, than those in the 1870s, than those in the fin de siècle. They reflect different pressures, different mores, and different audiences.) My keenest interests in the 19th century are the 1850s-1860s, which sees the rise of the sensation novel; and then post-Dickens literature, both because we start to see explicit criticisms of the century as a whole, and because an incredibly powerful voice for the poor ceased speaking.
So we don’t get some of Victoria’s later cattiness, like when one of her ladies-in-waiting (for what? the vote? a guilt-free cheesecake recipe? men to give up pretending and just admit that they have no idea what they’re doing down there?)
My last serious attempt to read Wilson was his biography of Queen Victoria, which is terrible, stick with Stanley “Bitchy Gossip” Weintraub, the American heterosexual Lytton Strachey. Wilson, a man, views the young Victoria as bratty and whiny, and unfair to her mother and her mother’s (allegedly not but come on) boyfriend John Conroy (who, by the way, was taking one for the team by seducing Victoria’s mother because he saw the hope of a regency that he would be the driver of, and once burrowed in like a tick, it would be tough to extract him, even if you held a match to his butt, like my mom taught us, which is how I got burned once on my inner thigh). Her mother and Conroy had devised a system, the Kensington System, that essentially stripped all agency and power from the child Victoria. She was allowed no playmates (because who was worthy enough to be the friend of a monarch-in-waiting?), no real outings, and slept in her mother’s room, even through most of her puberty. All of this, Wilson wipes away with, “Kids, amirite?” (Also, too, he just isn’t…gay? Enough? I mean, all Englishmen are gay, and everyone in England is an actor who has appeared in EastEnders or played Miss Marple (or both), so these gay Englishmen who perform heteronormativity are just really good at disappearing into the role. Except Wilson. So we don’t get some of Victoria’s later cattiness, like when one of her ladies-in-waiting (for what? the vote? a guilt-free cheesecake recipe? men to give up pretending and just admit that they have no idea what they’re doing down there?) developed stomach cancer, but Vicky and her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who kept getting caught in sex scandals, so he’s essentially the Bill Clinton of the 1830s, spread this rumor that Lady Flora Hastings was pregnant, probably with John Conroy’s love-child, and then, when Lady Flora dies, of the aforementioned stomach cancer, Victoria still claims, “But you totally get that she looked pregnant, right?”
I actually didn’t know that Wilson had written a biography of Charles Dickens. In the future, everyone will write a biography of Charles Dickens for 15 minutes. I am burdened with Too Much Knowledge, so a title like The Mystery of Charles Dickens isn’t going to do much for me, unless it is discovered that Dickens was actually Rosina Bulwer Lytton pulling a long prank on her husband by being a better writer than he was. (Rosina was married to Edward Bulwer Lytton of “It was a Dark and Stormy Night” fame, and they were always divorcing, and one of Rosina’s favorite things was to disguise herself as a costermonger and mingle at the back of public readings Edward was giving, and then she’d throw fruit at him. Also, in a neat bit of coincidence for this email, she told people that she was the model for the woman in white in the novel The Woman in White (she didn’t wear a lot of white, p.s.) and that the villain of the novel, Count Fosco, was supposed to be based on Edward, only Wilkie was unable to truly capture how evil Edward was so she considered the novel a failure as a novel, but an excellent entree into any conversation.) But I just looked at the book on Amazon and there is no mention of this so I will assume I know all the mysteries of Charles Dickens. Besides, the book is only 368 pages. Mysteries take time. Our mutual friend Keats wrote, “The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought.” And that’s why the only biography of Dickens you need is Peter Ackroyd’s 1200 page opus where, periodically, he just throws in an imaginary conversation he, Ackroyd, is having with Dickens and other writers of the period. It’s bonkers and makes no sense, but telling someone’s life linearly doesn’t make any more sense so why not? Ackroyd is blind to Dickens’s faults often, but in a way where you, the reader, are not, so you’ll find yourself saying, “Pete, Pete, Pete,” and there you are in your own imagined conversation with Peter Ackroyd and everything is an ouroborus eating itself.
But if your friend is finding Wilson’s slight bio of Dickens “delicious” I could also suggest some books on the Fasting Girls of the 19th century, who also felt self-satisfied, subsisting on so very little.