The Authorial Agony of Charles Dickens

My friend Scott Corbin sent me this poignant excert from Clair Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, 113-114:

“These were all distractions from the central business of the year, which was the story that had started as a few episodes and was being made into a novel, week by week, The Old Curiosity Shop. Against all the odds, it became the second-highest seller of all his books, surpassed only by the The Pickwick Papers, another improvised tale. What sort of a story was it? A very odd one, a picaresque tale of a child who tries and fails to escape from her fate, with a supposed protector, her grandfather, addicted to gambling, and a grotesquely wicked pursuer, the dwarf Quilp, both putting her at risk and driving her towards her death. Nell herself has no character beyond sweetness, goodness and innocence, which endeared her to male readers; and Lord Jeffrey, the great Scottish judge, critic and sometime editor of the Edinburgh Review, even likened her to Cordelia, although the only resemblance is in their untimely deaths. At the age of thirteen, Nell effectively has to look after her grandfather, who has been corrupted by his fascination with money, rather as Dickens’s maternal grandfather had been corrupted by money, and his father also, overspending, borrowing and failing to settle his debts; so this aspect of the story was quite close to home. And while there is very much more in the book than Nell, it is her death that made its fame. It was Forster who suggested that Dickens should kill her off: he seized the idea, and the slowly approaching death of Little Nell held readers in a state of excited anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic for many weeks. Letters came to Dickens imploring him to save her, and grave and normally equable men sobbed uncontrollably when they read that she was dead.

Dickens himself suffered as he wrote of Nell’s decline, and shared his sufferings with his friends through November and December 1840. He told Forster, ‘You can’t imagine how exhausted I am today with yesterday’s labours… All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable. I don’t know what to do with myself… I think the close of the story will be great.’ Then, a few days later, ‘The difficulty has been tremendous — the anguish unspeakable.’ To his illustrator, Cattermole, he wrote, ‘I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.’ In January, Macready was told, ‘I am slowly murdering that poor child, and grow wretched over it. It wrings my heart. Yet it must be.’ A few days later it was Maclise who heard, ‘If you knew what I have been suffering in the death of that child!’

Another letter to Forster shows how Dickens used his suffering, deliberately summoning up painful feelings, in the cause of telling a better story: ‘I shan’t recover it for a long time. Nobody will miss her like I shall. It is such a very painful thing to me, that I really cannot express my sorrow… I have refused several invitations for this week and next, determining to go nowhere til I had done. I am afraid of disturbing the state I have been trying to get into, and having to fetch it all back again.’

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  1. Some years back my wife and I visited Dickens’ home in London. It was remarkable to see handwritten copies of his work strewn here and there. It was said that the death of Nell was drawn from the experience Dickens went through when his wife’s young sister, Mary, died. She had come to live with them and Dickens actually fell in love with her. The psychological and physical reactions he experienced while writing the death of Nell, which you site in your post, are so intense because he was crushed when young Mary died in his arms and he was reliving his grief as he was writing of Nell’s death.

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