November 23rd, 2018

Dickens, Young And Old

A long lost portrait of Charles Dickens has recently turned up (in a tray of oddments in a South African auction). It shows him at 31, looking young for his age, with a round, girlish face, long, lustrous locks (locks being entirely the right word), a cupid's bow of a mouth and big, liquid eyes. A mere 27 years later he died wearing a very different face- the one we're familiar with- haggard, pouchy, lined, with silly swept forward wings of hair and a sparse, raggedy beard. The contrast is shocking. What came in between to turn the Caravaggio youth into such an old, old man- old beyond his years? Well, David Copperfield did, and Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Other novelists have written voluminously, but none have written so much to such a high standard. Balzac was prodigious- and also ran himself into the ground- but much of what he produced was just writing. Ditto Trollope. Tolstoy produced two classic novels, Austen five, Proust just the one. By contrast Dickens's score of indispensable masterpieces stands at something like fifteen and a half; for each of them he created a new world, and a new cast of characters. Creativity sustained at that level for such a stretch has got to wear a person down. As Yeats put it, "Whatever flames upon the night/Man's own resinous heart has fed."