Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Best of Men, The Worst of Men

Charles Dickens fits the description of a tale of two men – the young child, full of indignation, who overcomes poverty and reaps success, and the middle-age man who turns dour and a blind eye to his wife and family members. He manifested the best of men, and the worst of men.

Dickens ReadingHis writing, his actions and his outspoken views reflected a deep concern and personal unrest over squalid conditions and income inequality in 19th Century England that forced many families, including children, into debtor’s prison. He took pity on people down on their luck, especially young women thrust into a life of prostitution.

Dickens could converse with kings and convicts, and preferred convicts.

But at home, Dickens was out of his element. He disliked and ultimately disowned his wife. He wanted three children, but fathered 10. Their childish ways put them uncomfortably under foot and their demands deepened his lifelong worries about money, even after his novels earned him fame and financial security.

Even though his closest friends and the loyal sister of his discarded wife tried their best to hide it, Dickens took a fancy to a young actress and she became his “patient” – his circumlocution for mistress.

After resisting his advances, the young woman succumbed to his charm and bore him yet another son. But while living outside England with his young mother and seeing his famous father on occasions, the boy died in his infancy. Yet Dickens and Nelly remained a committed, yet secret pair for the remainder of his life. She was an invisible woman.

Dickens’ writing also posed a dichotomy in his writing. His earlier work contained grim scenes with cruel characters who often were funny. His later works show a darker cast, where people weren’t just evil; they were mean.

In her well documented biography, author Claire Tomalin says later novels, including David Copperfield, began to reflect autobiographical dimensions of Dickens’ life. The darkness grew out of his childhood alienation with his parents, who basically loaned him out as a child laborer in a boot-blacking factory instead of sending him to school. He felt as if his youth was sold for six shillings a week. That parental betrayal would become an anthem in many of works.

His father liked to live the life of a grandee on a naval clerk’s salary, which meant he was constantly ducking debt collectors and finally wound up in prison, along with his family. Little Charles only escaped imprisonment because he was effectively indentured to the boot-blacking factory.

Dickens also was a man with two faces when it came to America and France. He loved America, or at least the idea of America as a land trying to throw off the deadening weights of English society, until he visited America. Other than Boston, he thought the rest of the country not so hot, and wrote his criticism in American Notes, which made him decidedly unpopular on the other side of the pond.

Dickens initially disliked France, thinking the French foppish. But his frequent and often prolonged visits changed his mind and he turned into a francophile, which led to his animated storytelling of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities.

I gave up reading Dickens in college. Or maybe it was high school. A book review of Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life made me want to read about Dickens. Reading his individual novels or watching another holiday performance of A Christmas Carol gives you an impression of this iconic writer, but not a full view. Reading his biography sews up the loose ends and reinforces his reputation as one of the greatest English writers of all time.

You can see the sweep of his career, propelled ironically by monthly or weekly installments of his great novels squeezed between his duties as a magazine editor, which made Dickens perpetually “on deadline” until he died.

DickensHis skills remain skills we admire today – matchless powers of observation, a boundless memory of events and sayings that he infused into his oddball characters and rich imagination that he converted into word pictures for our minds so we breathe the soot, laugh at clownish behavior and cry over the death of fictional people.

Like many accomplished artists, his art was limited to one space. Dickens reputedly a good actor – he gave readings around the world (and even back in Post-Civil War America) that captivated audiences by bringing alive on stage his characters. Dickens could be the clown of a party, do magic tricks for children and sing well into the night.

And like modern men with two faces, Dickens could take great pity on the downtrodden and with the stroke of an expression expunge any contact with people who crossed or defied him, whether it was his brothers or his wife.



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