Neo-Victorian Review – Another Side of Dickens: Analysing Charles Dickens’ Inspirations and Discourse of Celebrity in Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens (2009)

José Viera is an independent researcher with an MA in Advanced English Studies (Specialisation in Literature and Cultural Studies) obtained at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain. His current research focuses on representations of Charles Dickens in biographies and as a fictionalised character in Neo-Victorian fiction, seeking to scrutinise the formation of his public persona throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries and the different ways in which authors continue to interpret and deconstruct his figure a century and a half after his death.

This post contains plot details and spoilers concerning Matthew Pearl’s novel The Last Dickens. Read on at your own discretion.

There is little doubt that, nearly 150 years after his passing, Charles Dickens continues to exert great influence over the current cultural panorama. Not only is he widely renowned for his entertaining, socially-engaged writing but, as Iris Kleinecke-Beis notes, his standing as an author “exceeds our familiarity with most of his prose,” often “trigger[ing] specific narrative and visual expectations in the audience” that evoke the grandeur associated with the Victorian period. [1] Given Dickens’ firm presence in the literary and cultural canons, it is little wonder that his persona has been recreated in various literary and audiovisual works: an illustrative example is Matthew Pearl’s 2009 novel The Last Dickens, which I shall review in this post. Known for writing intricately intertextual novels –examples include The Dante Club (2003) and The Poe Shadow (2006), in which Dante’s Inferno and Poe’s enigmatic persona play pivotal roles and affect their respective plots–, Pearl has been heralded as “the reigning king of popular literary historical thrillers” [2] and as a “passport” to the past [3], credentials that clearly accentuate his potential as a Neo-Victorian author: as I shall examine, The Last Dickens testifies to Pearl’s prowess as a historical writer, offering insights into Dickens’ rich scope as a writer while also analysing his handling of celebrity life, a commendable feat given Dickens’ position as one of the earliest transatlantic celebrities.

Divided into five main instalments –thus mirroring a quintessential means of publication during the Victorian era–, The Last Dickens contains three main lines of action. The first line of action concerns James R. Osgood’s search for the estranged chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ unfinished novel serialised in 1870: in so doing, Osgood hopes to preclude literary pirates from circulating unauthorised versions of the novel in America, seeking to help his company (Fields, Osgood and Co., Dickens’ American publishers) regain ground in a growingly competitive market. The second line of action draws our attention to Dickens’ tour of the United States in 1867, when he sought to make a profit by holding readings all over the nation: it is in this part of the novel that Dickens is brought to life by Pearl, deconstructing the strategies by which Dickens crafted his public persona. A third line of action unfolds in 1870 Bengal, where Dickens’ son Frank served as a policeman. The three subplots converge in their connection with Osgood’s search but, above all, in their connection with Dickens, exalting his richly layered production while also tracing the intricacies of his public persona: Pearl’s novel can therefore be located within a burgeoning tradition of Neo-Victorian works offering new perspectives on the life of the so-called Chief, aiming to re-evaluate and humanise his figure through the subversive prism of Neo-Victorian studies.

Published in 2009, Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens resurrects Charles Dickens in the form of a character and celebrates his legacy as an author and as a public figure.

Published in 2009, Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens resurrects Charles Dickens in the form of a character and celebrates his legacy as an author and as a public figure.

The first main line of action, concerned with Osgood’s search for the manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, interestingly invites readers to transcend Dickens’ image as a mere paradigm of family and merriment. Determined to find unreleased instalments of the novel to hinder the emergence of pirate versions in America, Osgood and her assistant Rebecca Sand leave for England, hoping to find information on the novel. What initially starts off as a seemingly safe errand soon becomes a growingly dangerous mission: finding himself menaced by a mysterious thief called Herman and anxiously searching for clues, Osgood soon happens upon Dick Datchery, a former frequenter of Dickens’ mesmerism sessions who apparently believes himself to be the character of the same name from Dickens’ final novel. Osgood resolves to count on his assistance hoping that “Dickens [may have] transferred, by some profound exposure, the skills of investigation displayed by the fictional character of Datchery on to this man.” [4] Datchery then takes him to the dangerous opium dens from which Dickens is said to have drawn inspiration for the novel, and readers soon notice the intertextual parallels uniting Dickens’ novel and Pearl’s narrative:

Witnessing this squalor was like seeing photographs of scenes from The Mystery of Edwin Drood! It recalled the very first scene of the book, where the devious John Jasper take refuge in his opium dreams as he prepares to begin his villainous plans against his nephew Drood; and Princess Puffer, the old woman stirring the opium, questions her visitor. [5]

These similarities, moreover, serve to remind us of Dickens’ wide array of sources of inspiration. Not only does he draw on obscure, taboo topics that complement his figure as the epitome of, as Louis Cazamian remarks, La philosophie de Noël –the Carol philosophy– [6], but he also lays the groundwork for the action in the novel: it is precisely because he deals with opium dens and the mystery of Edwin Drood that Osgood’s life is soon endangered by Edwin Drood himself. While resting at Falstaff Inn (the inn located next to Dickens’ residence, Gad’s Hill) later on, Osgood and Rebecca learn that the owner is the father of Edwin Trood, a rather likely model for Dickens’ character: upon learning the story, however, they are told that Edwin had actually died long ago, his bones having been found in his uncle’s house. Disappointed by a barren search (in which, moreover, Dick Datchery turns out to be Jack Rogers, an American working for rival firm Harper & Brothers), Osgood finally surrenders when John Forster –Dickens’ lifelong friend–, peruses a letter in which Dickens informs him that “with [his] illnesses worsening each day, [he] shall reach no further than the sixth number of [his] Drood.” [7] Disheartened, Osgood and Rebecca return to America: however, they soon learn that the letter Forster found had been forged and, at the same time, they realise that the ink from a pen bequeathed to Osgood –the one Dickens used to write TMED– had been used in documents signed by Dickens during his American stay; a discovery that, given Dickens’ habit of “us[ing] the same pen the entire way through the entire process of writing a novel,” gives them strength to resume their search. [8] A visit to Louisa Barton (a woman who stalked Dickens on his tour) redirects them to the Medical College of Boston, where they find the estranged manuscript: it is then that Mr Wakefield –an English businessman who has been aiding them throughout the narrative– reveals his real identity as Edwin Trood and, allied with the elusive Herman, resolves to collect the manuscript to keep his identity secret and continue to trade opium. While most of the manuscript is subsequently destroyed through several action-heavy scenes, Osgood salvages the final instalment, securing the future of his company.

Pearl’s narrative is clearly modeled on that of a detective story, offering an elaborate account of events concerning Dickens’ writing and daring to recreate an interesting solution to Dickens’ mystery, concluding that Edwin Drood is indeed alive. Pearl’s main strength, however, resides in his homage to Dickens’ prowess as a figure and an author: not only does Pearl reference Dickens’ interest in mesmerism –an art in which he firmly believed [9]– but, as noted earlier, we are granted valuable insights into the many topics Dickens tackled as an author, proving that the image we seem to have inherited of Dickens as a symbol of family discredits his rich coverage of Victorian life. Likewise, Pearl’s portrayal of the circumstances inspiring the production of TMED is commendably faithful to records: for instance, the opium den Osgood visits is modeled on an establishment ran by a woman called Sally and, similarly, the discovery of Edwin Trood’s –apparent– bones is informed by “a Rochester legend about human remains of a man’s nephew found in the walls of his house.” [10] While Osgood’s search of the manuscript has been fabricated, Pearl does provide an insightful testimony to Dickens’ merits as a writer; after all, few unfinished novels could provide such a great amount of scope for an entirely new narrative.

Dickens’ Dream, a portrait of Dickens at his Gad’s Hill desk by Robert William Bush. Much like Bush, Pearl celebrates Dickens’ inventiveness, exalting his wide scope as an author.

Dickens’ Dream, a portrait of Dickens at his Gad’s Hill desk by Robert William Bush. Much like Bush, Pearl celebrates Dickens’ inventiveness, exalting his wide scope as an author.

 

Pearl approaches another side of Dickens in the other main line of action in the novel, which recreates Dickens’ tour of America in 1867. While Dickens’ standing as a writer was unquestionable back in England, his status in America resembled that of a demi-god, becoming one of the first authors to achieve popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. As he wrote to his lawyer Thomas Mitton during his 1842 visit: “There was never a King or Emperor upon the Earth so cheered, and followed by crowds […] and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds.” [11] Dickens’ delight at his popularity, however, soon turned into tedium, beginning to crave a sense of privacy of which he had been deprived. The situation became even more strained when Dickens’ advocated the implementation of copyright laws in America, resulting in accusations of avarice: Pearl cleverly uses those events to his advantage, recreating Dickens’ second visit with a touch of inventiveness, yet founded on well-researched data.

Pearl exposes Dickens’ troubled view of America from the very start: upon arriving in Boston, Dickens finds himself confronting a gigantic crowd of reporters and followers. He is described as “equally pleased and discomfited” at the prospect [12], a mélange of feelings representative of his attitude towards the young nation: Pearl thus grants readers insights into Dickens’ psyche, picturing him as a contradictory man as regards his view of America and, at large, of the idea of celebrity. Having arrived at his hotel, Dickens seems to regret his return, noting to George Dolby –his tour manager– that the country has barely changed:

‘These people have not in the least changed in the last twenty-five years,’ he was saying, falling fast into a somber attitude. ‘They are doing already what they were doing all those years ago, making me some object of novelty to gaze upon! Dolby, I should have kept my word.’ [13]

Pearl ensures that Dickens’ viewpoint is clear from the beginning, yet he continues to examine his liaison with the nation throughout the subplot. While Dickens is shown to be widely admired by Americans –to the extent that they have even crafted Dickens-themed memorabilia, including “Little Nell Cigars” or “a Christmas Game of Dickens (for Old and Young)” [14]–, tensions seem to remain alive. For instance, a speculator at one of the queues for his readings –later revealed to be Jack Rogers– tries to discredit him, accusing Americans of “[h]and[ing] out honours to a Cockney foreigner for his trashy literary pamphlets that were never given to our own homegrown heroes” and decreeing that “[t]he literary war between the Old World and the New World has begun!” Likewise, rumours regarding Dickens’ personal life abound: for instance, a policeman at one of Dickens’ readings jokes that the author “doesn’t know if he’s married” and accuses him of “[carrying] on with his wife’s sister,” referencing the rumours regarding his separation from his wife, Catherine Dickens. [15] By drawing our attention to these accusations, Pearl places Dickens in interesting accordance with present-day celebrities, who also happen to confront numerous derogatory rumours.

While Dickens is clearly shown to loathe the excessive attention bestowed on him –claiming that “[n]ever [has he] known less of [himself] in all [his] life than in these United States of America” [16]–, Pearl also portrays him as a skillful individual very capable of crafting his public image. Not only is he aware of the importance of his physique –which is why he has his own stylist, Henry Scott, whose task is “to adjust [Dickens’] hair into the perfect image of the younger man seen in so many photos in the windows of so many bookstores” [17]–, but he also tries to salvage his moral standing at a time when accusations of adultery threatened his name. For instance, he employs a cryptic code to tell Ellen Ternan, his mistress, whether he can join him in America or not: as Louisa Barton reminisces when visited by Osgood and Rebecca, “’[a]ll well’ means to come. ‘Safe and well’ means not to come” [18], reproducing the two messages he planned to use to avoid controversy during his visit (in the end, he asked Ternan not to join him at the request of his publisher, James Fields). [19] His firm insistence on eluding scandals underscores his pioneering position as a celebrity of a marked moral character, distancing himself from more rebellious celebrities such as Lord Byron. He even offers advice on how to confront the press, affording to joke about headlines with Dolby: “Don’t be too serious about the papers. Why, depending on what American paper you read, my eyes are blue, red and grey, and the next day I’m proven a Freemason.” Dickens is thus represented as a figure capable of navigating through the turbid currents of celebrity life, even pioneering the discourse of image-making. Once again, Pearl ushers us through another side of the author: while certain characters are, again, pure invention, the main facts and entourage surrounding him are brought to life with great care and a thought-provoking narrative.

Poster promoting Dickens’ readings in Boston, where he began his America reading tour. Always keenly aware of his public standing, Dickens sought to craft and maintain a highly moral public persona while also weathering numerous intrusions upon his private life.

Poster promoting Dickens’ readings in Boston, where he began his America reading tour. Always keenly aware of his public standing, Dickens sought to craft and maintain a highly moral public persona while also weathering numerous intrusions upon his private life.

While Dickens has always occupied a remarkable place within the literary canon, the recent advent of Neo-Victorian adaptations regarding Dickens’ characters and public persona and the celebrations honouring the 200th anniversary of his birth have kindled an even stronger resurgence in popularity, encouraging us to fathom why he remains so popular with present-day audiences. In The Last Dickens, Pearl succeeds in eloquently recreating Dickens public and literary dimensions, granting readers insights into his process of fabulation while also depicting him as a celebrity capable of commanding a gigantic, alien audience. While Pearl sometimes struggles to seamlessly reconcile the three subplots –Frank Dickens’ chapters are overshadowed by those of the manuscript and the tour, allowing occasional insights into Dickens’ image as a highly demanding father and the circulation of opium to China, yet failing to hold a key standing in the narrative–, The Last Dickens is well-written and structured, allowing readers to process the narrative with ease. Through his novel, Pearl knits past and present together, and we are reminded why Dickens remains very much our contemporary, no matter how many years go by.

Additional notes:

Other recent examples of representations of Dickens include Ralph Fiennes’ 2013 film The Invisible Woman (based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of the same name) and Carmen A. Deedy and Randall Wright’s 2014 novel The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. Even though the former revolves around Dickens’ affair with Ellen Ternan and the latter provides insights into Dickens’ process of fabulation, both texts share their focus on representing Dickens as a character.

– Samantha J. Carroll notes that Neo-Victorian fiction possesses a post-modern prism through which authors can “unsettle, deconstruct, […] or trouble such seemingly adamantine categories as subjectivity, history, race, gender, sexuality or class,” providing scope for reinterpretations of many issues, including traditionally idolised figures such as that of Dickens. [20]

– Even though, in Pearl’s novel, Dickens is shown to remain unbothered by rumours and attacks, evidence stating the opposite can be found in biographical accounts of Dickens: for instance, his friend Forster noted Dickens often found himself hurt by criticisms, “believ[ing] himself to be entitled to higher tribute than he was always in the habit of receiving.” [21]

_____________

[1] Iris Kleinecke-Bates, “Historicizing the Classic Novel Adaptation: Bleak House (2005) and British Television Contexts,” in Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities, ed. by Rachel Carroll. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), pp. 111-122 (p. 111).

[2] “Don’t-Miss Fiction from Berg, Haruf, Kramer, Pearl | Fiction Reviews, 1 April 2015,” Library Journal, 1 April 2015 <http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2015/04/books/fiction/dont-miss-fiction-from-berg-haruf-kramer-pearl-fiction-reviews-april-1-2015/> [Accessed 11 July 2016]

[3] “Matthew Pearl’s Latest Book is a Dickens of a Mystery,” New York Daily News, 21 March 2009 <http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/matthew-pearl-latest-book-dickens-mystery-article-1.369046> [Accessed 11 July 2016]

[4] Matthew Pearl, The Last Dickens (New York: Random House, 2009), p. 225.

[5] Ibid, p. 242.

[6] Louis Cazamian, Le roman social en Angleterre 1830-1850  (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Fondation Thiers, 1904), p. 10.

[7] The Last Dickens, p. 358.

[8] Ibid, p. 385.

[9] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 160-1.

[10] The Last Dickens, p. 457.

[11] Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens: The Pilgrim Edition, Volume 3: 1842-1843, ed. by Madeleine House, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 43.

[12] The Last Dickens, p. 113.

[13] Ibid, p. 114.

[14] Ibid, p. 127.

[15] Ibid, p. 151.

[16] Ibid, p. 280.

[17] Ibid, p. 118.

[18] Ibid, p. 397.

[19] Charles Dickens: A Life, p. 365.

[20] Samantha J. Carroll, “Putting the ‘Neo’ Back into Neo-Victorian: The Neo-Victorian Novel as Postmodern Revisionist Fiction,” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), p. 182.

[21] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Volume 3: 1852-1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 347.

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