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The Sparkler explained...

Why have I written a novel about Charles Dickens?

It's something I've been asked, now, several times and I expect to be asked it again when it comes out in May. (It's available for pre-order soon.) Partly, the answer's very simple: it was inspired by two books, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott and Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The latter was particularly inspiring. Far more than the biographies by Peter Ackroyd, Una Pope-Hennessy, Claire Tomalin and Fred Kaplan, Douglas-Fairhurst gives you a sense of Dickens as an emerging figure: not the established man of letters but a man who is just coming into his own and who is finding, already, that success is not a straightforward thing. What you want in a novel is something, or someone, that isn't fixed in stone. You want struggle, and an aim that isn't a foregone conclusion; that can seem to recede further into the distance the more your character runs towards it. In short (to use a Dickensian formulation), Dickens was never at rest. The effects on his emotions of his early life – his job in a factory and his feckless family – meant that he was always trying to escape the thing that he'd outdistanced long ago. He was exorbitantly driven, and we know, don't we, how that invariably turns out.

At first, I thought that Grimaldi might be the protagonist. A famous clown! What could be better? But I found, as I was reading Stott's excellent book, that it was already something of a novel in its own right. Take this, for example. It's the story of his grandfather, who was a sauteur: "a kind of gymnast specialising in high leaps that were achieved by bending one leg at an oblique angle and coiling it low to the ground before jumping explosively into the air". Stott writes:

"It was ...during the performance of Le Prix de Cythere that the Grimaldi family first leapt to national prominence. According to legend, the show was visited by the grand figure of Mehemet Effendi, the ambassador of the Ottoman Sublime Porte. The ambassador, a vain and preening man, announced his presence by taking the box nearest the stage and, excited at the prospect of performing before such an eminence, Giovanni bet his colleagues that he could jump as high as the chandelier that flanked the box. He won his bet with his first leap but, in doing so, kicked the chandelier with enough force to smash it. One shard found its way down the throat of the laughing Mehemet, while a second hit him in the eye. Blind, choking and humiliated, he was quick to complain of the indignity he had suffered at the feet of a mere jester, and demanded that Grimaldi be punished before the full Court. A public act of contrition was accordingly arranged, only for Giovanni to seize it as a further opportunity for self-promotion by lacing his apology with such a dash of fairground double-talk that he reduced the courtiers to hysterics, heaping further dishonour upon the injured man."

Surely this is unimproveable. All you can possibly do is fill it in a little; add a few colours and gracenotes. But you can't make anything out of it. It's static. It's a set-piece. And that was Grimaldi's life: one set-piece after another. No, Dickens it was and Dickens it had to be. His life was complex; it was fluid in a way that Grimaldi's wasn't. Which isn't to say that Grimaldi wasn't a nuanced human being, just that he seemed to spend his whole life hammering at the one note: comedy. He exhausted himself; he wrecked his body. But it was all in the service of pantomime. As a foil to Dickens, he was perfect. (And entirely fictional. There's no evidence that the two of them ever met, despite the fact that Dickens wrote his biography.) I could see how he might be made to tempt Dickens into a whole other mode of being; how he might be irresistible to the young man who had once applauded him. But Dickens had to be the main event. There is so much to write about. And (thank God) there are huge gaps.

To explain. Dickens has always fascinated me. When I was about ten – and when I was, let's be honest, an enormous swot – I used to type out whole passages from his books. I know now (and I think that I knew then) that this was a five-finger exercise, but it was more than that. I thought his descriptions were delightful. He had a way with exaggerated metaphor and these seemed, to me, to function as a sort of fairy dust that he sprinkled over a world that was, once he'd finished with it, both strange and recognisable. Somewhere, for example, is the image of a man giving birth to his own foot. And, of course, there's the fog in Bleak House; the many ways it seems simultaneously to magnify and comment on the city that surrounds it. To read and then assimilate images like this was to see the world anew, and, moreover, to be encouraged to try to do the same: to employ what Michael Longley calls "redemptive eloquence". In other words, to try to remake the world; to fix it in an image, yes, but also to make it make sense. To give it shape. Dickens was, I used to think, the acme of grown-up literature.

Only he isn't. Because gaps there are and those gaps insist on being explained, at least to me. In his essay on Dickens, Orwell quotes D.H. Lawrence on Balzac. Lawrence called him "a gigantic dwarf" and that, Orwell is implying, is the perfect description of Dickens too. Why? Because, for all his vividness and seeming comprehensiveness, he largely leaves adult relationships alone. Sex, obviously (apart from the wonderful line about chimneys "spitting fire" in Hard Times), but also anything that could possibly lead to sex. It isn't enough to say that Dickens was a nineteenth century novelist. Read George Eliot or Thackeray and you can feel the way that sex is thrumming in the background. Dickens, though? It's all-but-inaudible. At least, it is in his early books. After the beginning of his affair with Ellen Ternan, it's true that his female characters become much more recognisably human. It's also true that there are characters in all of his later books whose passionate natures, and indeed whose pasts and ruined lives, make certain inferences inevitable. But, still, when it comes to the relations between men and women, he is so circumspect that it's as though he's afraid to bring certain things into the light.

It's this, most of all, that made me want to write about him. This, and his relationship with his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. He fell to pieces when she died; way more than his wife was allowed to do. She found him struggling in the wardrobe with Mary's clothes. He wore Mary's ring. For a while, he couldn't write. And then there's his language: his insistence that she was "an angel"; that her and her sister had never, not ever, had a cross word. I mean, seriously, what is going on here? What is he hiding, especially from himself? I'm not alone in thinking that I know. Peter Carey, for example, wrote about a fictional Dickens in Jack Maggs. His Dickens gets Mary (a fictional Mary) pregnant. I didn't go that far, but I did try to examine what I'm sure were his less-than-familial feelings. How did he keep them out of his conscious mind? Did he? Barely, I think. This was the question that exercised me the most: what was his intimate life like? Nobody really knows. Some biographers have suggested that he visited prostitutes as a young man (a not uncommon form of "education" for men of his age and class), but that didn't particularly interest me. No, instead, I made things up. This is one of the things, I think, that fiction's best at: using imaginary stories to address questions that you can't find the answers to. My Dickens has an affair. His attitude to his wife is explored by means of a scenario that has no basis whatsoever in the facts we know. But all the rest of the facts are true. I did an awful lot of research and, in the end, I almost managed to convince myself that it happened just as I say it did.

Once, at the Hay Festival, I upset Claire Tomalin. I asked her if she thought her biography of Dickens was just another version. After all, Peter Ackroyd had maintained... I didn't get much further than that. "I have no idea," she said, "why Peter would say that!" But it's true: nobody can possibly know everything. Why did I write a book about Dickens? Because it seems impossible, considering what we don't know, to answer the questions that I wanted answers to. In the end, I had to make those answers up myself. It was an extremely enjoyable thing to do. Now, though, I have to wave my effort off as it tries to make its way out in the world. In essence, I have to point at it and say: "Look what I've done." It is, it's true, a little nerve-wracking. I hope that, rather than put people off, it will inspire the kind of discussion that, in his own time and place, Dickens could never hope to have.

You can order The Sparkler here.



May 19

I really enjoyed the first chapter. Looking forward to the rest of the book.

Alan Humm
Alan Humm
May 19
Replying to

Thank you. Is that you Ange? The Cherry Tree Ange?

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