Book Review: The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens

The Selected Letters of Charles Dickensedited by Jenny HartleyOxford University Press, 2012The Dickens bicentennial has thus far been a fairly painless affair. Readers who perhaps consider Dickens to be the single most overrated author in the history of the human race have only had to endure a negligent smattering of quick TV documentaries, some easily-avoided symposia, and a couple of slapped-together commemorative editions of the better-known novels. Of course the year isn't over yet, but so far the hoopla is much less pronounced and well-organized than, say, that attending Charles Darwin bicentennial back in 2009.  Happily, however, the two anniversaries share one thing in common: they each produced an absolute gem. In Darwin's case, it was a superb annotated Origin of Species from Harvard Belknap, and in Dickens' case, it's Jenny Hartley's The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens from Oxford University Press. This volume reads better than any actual novel Dickens ever wrote (although again, some readers would say that doesn't take much).The British Academy Pilgrim Edition of Dickens' letters runs to twelve volumes and features some 14,000 items ranging - as letters will - from hastily-jotted single sentences to long, rambling mini-treatises. From that dragon's hoard Hartley has extracted the 450 letters that comprise this volume and then added copious notes (blissfully located at the bottom of each individual letter, instead of coagulated unhelpfully at the bottom of the page like dried blood under a corpse) and a superb Introduction. The result is a typically classy Oxford affair, the kind of book one long-time reader said "survives every purge."As Hartley points out, Dickens lived in the first real golden age of easy epistolary communication. He saw the creation of universal penny postage and the blossoming of postal service (between ten and twelve deliveries a day, starting at 7 in the morning - as close to texting as the pre-modern world comes), and Dickens embraced the new craze enthusiastically, caring about every aspect of it:

The appearance of a letter mattered to Dickens, as did the process of writing it. He used a quill, and groaned when he had to 'write with a steelpen (which I can never use)'. He preferred blue ink on blue paper. In addition to signing his letters, he also signed his name on the bottom left-hand corner of the envelope.

This volume does a superb job of covering the staggering range of Dickens' correspondence - that's a big part of what makes this book so beguiling. We see the great man bombarded with the kind of pathetic importuning that any author today would hand over to some sort of administrative assistant:

To George Fletcher November 1841Sir.It is no less painful to me to refuse, than it is to you to ask. Let me do so, briefly.Nearly every day of my life, I receive letters akin to that which you have sent me. My inclination is, God knows, never to send an applicant away, empty-handed. But if I were the richest man in England, I should have to disappoint, almost as often as I helped. Judge, then, being what I am, how frequently I am forced to hold my hand.Fames' Trumpet should blow a little more of the wealth arising from the circulation of my works, into the Booksellers' pockets, and less into my own. With a hundred claims upon my superfluity, I cannot render more than sympathy to such a case as yours. If I could, I the Editor of the Times, 1849

And naturally we get the signature Dickens impressionability, a quality some readers may consider frothing-at-the-mouth amok in the man's novels, but here in the letters thrillingly effective:

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderer to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assemble spectators. When I came upon the scene at midight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold.

And then there's writing. Like all the other great literary figures of his day, Dickens was relentlessly aware of his own status as a professional writer, and he's actually quite delightful when describing all the various stages and moods of writing (in one note, he patiently explains to his editor that he won't be producing his promised piece that day because he drank a very large amount of brandy the night before - certainly a frankness many freelancers today wish they could emulate). In 1857, for instance, he writes to the problematic Lavinia Watson about post-composition euphoria in a way no other writer could quite match:

It leaves me - as my Art always finds me and leaves me - the most restless of created Beings. I am the modern embodiment of the old Enchanters, whose Familiars tore them to pieces. I weary of rest, and have no satisfaction but in fatigue. Realities and idealities are always comparing themselves together before me, and I don't like the Realities except when they are unattainable - then, I like them of all things. I wish I had been born in the days of Ogres and Dragon-guarded Castles. I wish an Ogre with seven heads (and no particular evidence of brains in the whole lot of them) had taken the Princess whom I adore - you have no idea how intensely I love her! - to his stronghold on the top of a high series of Mountains, and there tied her up by the hair. Nothing would suit me half so well this day, as climbing after her, sword in hand, and either winning her or being killed - There's a state of mind for you, in 1857.

Dickens often does that little temporal scene-setting, that telling of the time and day and year, reflexively grounding his (already precisely dated) letters in the here and now. One one level, it seems like the nervous habit of a man who's certain penny-postage letters are mere chaff, evanescent, and so needing as much pointless anchoring as possible. But there's almost certainly another level, one on which Dickens knew from a very early point in his life that everything he wrote would be of interest to posterity. Some readers may say this awareness tempts most of his novels into an absolutely fatal dramatic complacency that renders them all-but-unbearable period kitsch. But that awareness - that ear for immortality - certainly helps the letters. Hartley would please a great many readers by producing a second volume from the same dragon-hoard.