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Performing Dickens and Playing With Genre: Dramatic and Fictional Biographies

Kirsten Andersen, University of Virginia

The proper balance between fact and imagination in the writing of history has always been a vexed issue.  One of literature’s most famous fictional critics of history, Catherine Morland is unwittingly perceptive in her assessment of the imaginative nature of historical narrative.  Catherine remarks that it is odd that she finds history “so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books” (Austen, 104).  Of course, history as a discipline has undergone great changes since the early nineteenth century.  As Louisa Hadley points out, history in the nineteenth century “sought to distance itself from literature and align itself with science through the adoption of scientific principles such as objectivity, reliability and a commitment to factual evidence” (Hadley, 21).  Historians no longer compose elaborate rhetorical flights of fancy and attribute them to Napoleon or Alfred the Great.

But such historical inventiveness succeeded in making history entertaining by combining the best elements of history and literature. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a new hybrid genre arose to fill this vacated niche: the past decade has seen a boom in the popularity of historical fiction and biographical fiction—or biofiction. Authors are especially popular subjects for biofiction, partly because we continue to be fascinated by the link between fiction and biography. Certain authors in particular spring into prominence at certain times. David Lodge dubbed 2004 “the year of Henry James,” because it saw the publication of two biofictional novels about James as well as a novel about an academic writing his dissertation on James (Leavitt).
By this logic, 2008 should be called “the year of Charles Dickens” due to the preponderance of Dickensian biofiction published during this year. In anticipation of the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth in 2012, many authors have sought to reevaluate the legacy of this consummate Victorian writer by placing him as a character in a novel. While these biofictional novels might seem merely derivative and inevitably inferior to Dickens’s own, they are nevertheless one of the main ways in which Dickens inhabits the contemporary popular imagination.
In one of the fictional interludes in his 1990 biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd imagines Dickens saying, “Biographers are simply novelists without imagination” (Ackroyd, 754). Authors of biofiction are subject to similar criticism. The author of a work of biofiction uses the life of the author as raw material, as a pre-existing narrative whose lacunae seem to invite the writer to fill in the gaps. But I’d like to argue that both biography and biofiction involve acts of imaginative transformation of facts into narrative, of textual remains into characters. As Hermione Lee writes, “Biographies are full of verifiable facts, but they are also full of things that aren’t there: absences, gaps, missing evidence, knowledge or information that has been passed from person to person, losing credibility or shifting shape on the way. Biographies, like lives, are made up of contested objects—relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable” (Lee, 5).
While biofiction also attempts to construct a narrative by filling in the gaps in the evidence, this genre also contests the biography’s focus on the heroic individual. Biofiction challenges the right of the traditional subject of biography to be the center around which the narrative is constructed. In the case of Dickens, biofiction strives to recover a cast of real and imaginary characters to share the stage with “the Inimitable.” This is, of course, a political project. Ever since Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, writers of biofiction have striven to critique traditional approaches to biography and literary criticism from a feminist or post-colonial perspective. Biofiction also challenges the idea that the lifespan of a single individual is the proper focus for a biography, doing away with the narrative arc of the cradle-to-grave biography. To illustrate some of the questions biofiction raises, I will be examining two recent novels that focus on Dickens’s marriage with Catherine Dickens and his relationship with Ellen Ternan: Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and Wanting by Richard Flanagan.
In her novel, Gaynor Arnold imagines the story of Catherine and Charles Dickens’s marriage from the wife’s point of view. In the preface, Arnold writes that “in Dorothea Gibson [the fictional protagonist] I have tried to give voice to the largely voiceless Catherine Dickens, who once requested that her letters from her husband be preserved so that ‘the world may know he loved me once.’” (Arnold, “Author’s Note”) Three years later, Lillian Nayder’s provocative new biography of Catherine Hogarth was published. In her biography, Nayder announces her intention of rewriting the story of the Dickens’s marriage with Catherine as the main protagonist, rather than Charles. Nayder argues that the “plotline” of Catherine’s story “is largely the creation of Charles Dickens, and a self-serving fiction at best” (Nayder, 1). Nayder describes the goal of her project as “wresting away from her husband the power to shape Catherine’s biography,” forcing “him to the margins” and “giving voice to a spectrum of Victorians instead” (Nayder, 1).
The biographical project of giving one’s subject a voice, especially if that subject was a largely voiceless one, inevitably involves a creative process akin to creating a character in a work of fiction. The biographer imagines the subject’s thoughts and feelings, just as the novelist does, filling in the silences and gaps in the record. In the retelling, major characters recede into the background and minor characters come to the fore, and in the process one realizes the amount of “self-serving fiction” that goes into the telling of our own lives, or the lives of those close to us. Any decision to bring one character to the center, and make the work of fiction or biography his or her story to the exclusion of others, does violence to the story of those excluded even as it amplifies the story of those pushed to the center. The interconnectedness of life and art becomes apparent, and it is clear that telling the story of any life is much an exercise in narrative art, that both real and imaginary lives are to a large extent, works of fiction. As Peter Ackroyd observes of his biography of Dickens, that he often “impl[ies] more certainty and assume[s] more authority than he actually possesses,” especially with regard to “the relationship of Charles Dickens with his wife.” “The real nature of their marriage cannot be recovered,” writes Ackroyd, “but of course that did not stop me from interpreting it in a very direct way” (Ackroyd, 893). The need to impose a narrative structure on events is “the only real connection” between novels and biographies, according to Ackroyd, but it is a crucial link between the two genres (896).
In Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” the aesthete, Vivian declares “that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life,” claiming that “A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.” (Wilde, web) Biographers and critics have often accused Charles Dickens of creating a type of idealized Womanhood in his novels—vivacious but gentle; childlike yet a good manager of a household; the creator of a safe haven for the man to return to after his days of labor in the public sphere, effortlessly maintaining peace and order—and of punishing his wife for not satisfactorily living up to it. While it is perfectly fair to accuse Dickens of making efforts to make his wife conform to the standards he established in his fiction, I want to argue that the temptation to intermingle life and art is almost irresistible—not only to the writers of works of biofiction, but to biographers as well.
Lillian Nayder succumbs to this temptation in practically every chapter of her biography of Catherine Dickens, although she does it so artfully that it is difficult to resist being seduced by the seeming aptness of the parallels she draws. At various points in the biography, Nayder compares Catherine to such diverse literary figures as Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, the Greek mythological character Galatea, and Lizzie in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Such fictional analogues are perhaps intended to redress the negative portrayals of wives that Dickens inserted into his fiction: Dora Copperfield, Mrs. Gradgrind, or Edith Dombey. The impulse to beat Dickens at his own game is almost irresistible to Nayder. In any case, her use of fictional analogies highlights the difficulty of separating life and literature.
Biofiction ignores this generic distinction entirely, and is thus enabled to satisfy our fantasies about how past events could have happened differently. These fictional accounts of historical persons give us the freedom to “imagine otherwise” and redress the injustices of the past. As Arnold writes in her “Author’s Note”:
Girl in a Blue Dress is a work of fiction, and in creating my own story of Alfred and Dorothea Gibson, I have taken a novelist’s liberties as I explored an imaginative path through their relationship. I have changed many things…I have imagined scenes and dialogues that never existed, in places where the real participants never ventured. (Arnold, “Author’s Note”)
One of the most satisfying of these “imagined scenes and dialogues” is a confrontation between Dorothea Gibson and Wilhelmina Ricketts, Arnold’s stand-in for Ellen Ternan. In an incredibly tense series of chapters, Dorothea takes a cab to Wilhelmina’s residence, and asks her to explain the motivations behind her relationship with Alfred. The reader’s satisfaction when Dorothea at one point actually grabs her rival by the shoulders and shakes her is, understandably, intense. However, like her name-sake in Middlemarch, Dorothea Gibson ultimately makes the imaginative leap of sympathy for her former rival in Alfred’s affections. “In a way,” Dorothea muses, “she has passed the intervening years much as I have done, spinning out small domestic tasks to fill the hours of daylight” (Arnold, 376). In the end, their common plight as women and their shared love for the same man unites these two women who both allowed Gibson to take center stage for at least part of their lives.
One of the benefits of biofiction is that it allows us to imagine the lives of those excluded from or marginalized in traditional historical accounts and biographies, using the very tool that was once the instrument of their exclusion: writing. While Dickens turned the women in his life into flattened two-dimensional characters who querulously repeat the same phrases over and over again, authors like Arnold can recover those suppressed voices in their rich polyphony. Arnold endows Dorothea with a voice, but only in order to extol the virtues of her husband and her sorrow at his loss. By the end of Girl in a Blue Dress, Dorothea is empowered to pick up her pen to write, but only in order to finish Ambrose Boniface, the novel Alfred Gibson left unfinished at his death. “Stay home I shall,” Dorothea narrates in the final paragraph of the novel, “but I do not plan to go back to my old, idle ways. I almost feel I have Alfred’s blood running through my veins. I go to the little desk and pull a sheaf of paper towards me. I take up my pen. I hold it high up so I don’t dirty my fingers. I dip it in the ink. And I start to write” (Arnold, 414). Not only does Dorothea finally find her voice only to bequeath it to her husband, but we do not get to hear what Dorothea writes. The novel ends with her beginning to write.
Nayder’s biography seeks more fully to recover the “spectrum” of Victorian voices—not only Catherine’s, but also those of her mother, sisters, daughters, servants and friends. Claire Tomalin and Richard Flanagan have performed similar work with regard to Ellen Ternan. Tomalin’s biography The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens seeks to tell “the story of someone who—almost—wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air,” but who also “connived at her own obliteration” (Tomalin, 3). Though no correspondence between Ternan and Dickens survives, Tomalin accomplishes the difficult task of piecing together her story, and speculating about what might have occurred during the silences in the record. Most accounts of Ternan’s life only focus on her time with Dickens, even though she outlived him by forty-four years, and went on to marry and run a boys’ school in Margate with her husband (Tomalin, 217-218). So, ironically, the most famous period in her life is also the least documented.
Richard Flanagan also portrays this shadowy figure in his novel Wanting, which focuses on Dickens’s performance in The Frozen Deep, as well as the life of Sir John Franklin, which inspired Dickens and Wilkie Collins to write the play. Franklin died during an Arctic expedition and was later rumored to have committed cannibalism with his crew. Dickens staunchly defended him in an article in Household Words, and co-wrote The Frozen Deep in an effort to eulogize Franklin as a hero of the civilized world. Before his failed expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, Franklin was the governor of the British colony of Tasmania, and it is this period of Franklin’s life which is largely the focus of Flanagan’s novel. Sir John’s childless wife Lady Jane adopts a native girl from Flinders Island, whom she names Mathinna, intending to educate and “improve” her. But when Mathinna begins to blossom into a woman, Sir John finally takes notice of her, calling her “the most beautiful savage he had ever seen” (Flanagan, 131). Tragically, the powerful white man rapes the native girl, then abandons her at an orphanage, rather than live with the reminder of his guilt. Meanwhile, the novel also follows the story of the development of Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan, whom he met through his performance in The Frozen Deep, the connection between Dickens and Franklin. Flanagan’s novel dramatizes multiple aspects of the Victorian era—in particular the exploitation of colonized peoples and women. Perhaps because Flanagan insistently uses the real names of his historical characters, Wanting seems more direct and visceral than Girl in a Blue Dress.
Flanagan’s novel also differs from Arnold’s in that it is written in the third person and presents a multilayered plot which switches between Tasmania and England, keeping the focus from lingering on any one character, and instead presenting a multifaceted look at various aspects of the British Empire. Catherine’s plight pales when compared to the exploitation of Mathinna and the extermination of the Tasmanian people. Biofiction reminds us of the many voices that went unheeded and unrecorded. As Richard Flanagan writes in his online “note” to his novel, “There is little accurate information about Mathinna,” though documentary evidence that she lived with the Franklins survives, along with a painting of her as a child in a red dress (Flanagan, web). She was taken from her home in Flinders Island, raised by the Franklins at the Governor’s House in Hobart, then left at an orphanage when the Franklins left Tasmania. After this, her story drops off the map, until historians conjecture the date of her death, which occurred in the mid-1850s (Flanagan, web). Lady Franklin’s biographer Frances Woodward omits Mathinna entirely from his account of her life.
It is Flanagan’s project to recover this lost narrative and to show that Dickens’s project of valorizing Franklin as a hero-explorer necessarily involves ignoring less savory aspects of his life. Dickens’s proof that Franklin did not commit cannibalism rests solely on the distinction he draws between “civilized Englishmen” and “barbaric savages.” In his article, “The Lost Arctic Voyagers,” Dickens declares, “We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel,” (Victorian web) and argues that the report of an Eskimo who found the remains of the crew’s camping site could not be valid. Which did the British public want to believe, Dickens implied: the word of an Englishman or “the wild tales of a herd of savages”?
I would argue that the act of imaginative recuperation involved in writing the Frozen Deep produced a work of biofiction. Sir John Franklin becomes the hero of a sentimental melodrama. The fictional character Richard Wardour is the captain of a ship who sacrifices his own desires in order to rescue his rival in love. The tale of a doomed battle against the elements is transformed into a successful struggle to control the will and repress desire. David Solway describes Franklin his poem Franklin’s Passage as “fatuous, overweight, slovenly, bovine; / aproned to his wife’s ambitions” (Solway, 13). Dickens transforms this unsuccessful explorer into a hero; a man who carries his rival across the ice in order to restore him to the arms of the woman they both love. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort attended a command performance of The Frozen Deep. Because of his literary eminence, Dickens was able to redeem the story of the explorer who never returned, in an extraordinary act of imaginative biofiction. But this act of recovery necessarily involves subordinating the stories of other lives which contest this heroic narrative—lives such as Mathinna’s, which are deemed unworthy of our notice.
Writers like Flanagan and Arnold want to contest biography’s focus on “exemplary” or exceptional individuals, to contest Carlyle’s idea that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men” (Carlyle, 45). Rather, for these authors, history is inevitably the story of intersubjectivity, of lives that intersect in unpredictable ways and have immense impact on each other. As Herbert Spencer remarked in his critique of Carlyle’s great men theory, "you must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him" (Spencer, 30-31). Biofiction seeks to recover those complex influences and to recast them as human characters who each contribute to the society that produces the heroic individual. This is not to deny that men like Dickens had an immeasurable impact on their society, which we continue to feel today, but only to remind us that his life was shaped by other lives, and that the imaginative act involved in creating a fictional character is no less an act of invention than the biographical project of bringing a character out of the past to life. Just as Martin Chuzzlewit could not thrive without Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley, so Dickens would not have been the writer he was without the panoply of lives that made up his world.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Arnold, Gaynor. Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. ed. Marilyn Butler. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. London: Chapman and Hall (second edition), 1842.

Dickens, Charles. “The Lost Arctic Voyagers.” Household Words. (2 and 9 December 1854): 362-65, 387-393.  (Online version at Victorian Web)

Flanagan, Richard. Notes:Wanting (Author’s Website). ©Random House Australia. 

Flanagan, Richard. Wanting. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.

Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Leavitt, David.  "A Beast in the Jungle." The New York Times (online). December 23, 2007.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Solway, David. Franklin’s Passage. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.

Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1896.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. London: Viking Penguin, 1990.

Oscar Wilde. "The Decay of Lying." Online version based on the text from Volume 7 of The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde (New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909). Converted to HTML by George P. Landow.
Kirsten Andersen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia.  Her research interests include the role of domestic servants in crime fiction.  She also enjoys neo-Victorian fiction and film adaptations of Victorian novels.