If Dickens remains immortal, it is, among other reasons, for his profound understanding of the inner child who remains with all of us until we die.
This is profoundly true for A.N. Wilson, who tells us how, in the misery and terror of his years in an English public school (in effect a concentration camp run by sexual perverts) he was saved by his introduction to Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. So his bond with Dickens, with all his flaws, isn’t surprising. Dickens was a hypocrite, appallingly cruel to his wife, domineering and manipulative to his young secret mistress, Nelly Ternan. His books are full of sweet childlike heroines, and in real life he liked such child-women, but there’s also a powerful strain of lust and violent possessiveness in characters like Bradley Headstone, Mr Quilp, Steerforth and John Jasper, and in his public readings he loved to reenact, with tremendous brutality, Bill Sykes’ murder of the prostitute Nancy.
The Mystery Of Charles Dickens isn’t a biography. It sets out to understand the character of the man by weaving the events of his life in with the events of his novels, and it really did make me better understand a man who has always been a bit of a caricature for me, with a pantomime vision of the world. But Wilson makes the case for Dickens’ garish, gaslit, melodramatic barn…where the yokels gape by showing us how such pantomime frees us up from a formal relationship to literature. If Dickens’ world is artificial, so is the world of more restrained and subtle writers; his has the noise and dirt of society on it, and its lack of restraint touches, shocks and disturbs us just as a fight in the street or public celebrations and mourning do. We all recognise different parts of his world; we all take different parts of his world into us.
Wilson knows the novels through and through, their highs and lows, the genius and the hackwork. It wears its learning lightly, but this is an important contribution to Dickens literature for its reading of the novels and characters as much as for the light it throws on Dickens the man.