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Dickens’ Last Words, Sort Of

Thomas Hauser’s purported final words of the great nineteenth-century novelist take the form of a memoir, written shortly before his death (in 1870) and kept from publication until today. In many ways, the story is illuminating (especially about Dickens’ early career, before he married Catherine Hogarth, in 1836.) But the voice of the narrative—supposedly Dickens’ but more often Hauser’s—is less convincing than the elaborate tale the memoir reveals. Still, Hauser is right to speculate about one of the world’s greatest novelists and suggest that an early event in his life subsequently shaped the rest of his years as well as his brilliant writing career.

This is the ruse: When Dickens is still at the beginning of his career, publishing the “Sketches by Boz” in a newspaper, an enormously pompous businessman, named Charles Wingate (who will turn out to be the Bernie Madoff of his era) approaches the young Dickens and suggests that he write a sketch about him. That’s a terrible error on Wingate’s part, but he’s obsessed with his image. He tells Dickens that he has nothing to hide and the writer—a journalist at this stage of his career—should search into his past before he writes the sketch. The problem is that Wingate has plenty to hide, including a couple of murders which Dickens uncovers with the help of a two detectives.

Wingate is also married to a stunningly beautiful woman, named Amanda, whom Dickens is attracted to the first time he sees her. A series of events lead to the young writer escorting Amanda to the ballet one night when her husband is away on a business trip. After that evening, Dickens is totally smitten by Wingate’s wife, though he is literally on the dickenslastverge of marrying Catherine Hogarth. Then, a couple of days after the ballet, Amanda visits him in his flat and seduces the still virginal Dickens. Events begin to unmask Wingate, who with his wife flees London in the middle of the night, in order to escape the charges of murder. Dickens marries Catherine and pines for Amanda the rest of his life.

All accounts of Dickens’ life attest to the fact that the writer’s marriage was a terrible one. The two were unsuited for one another, but Dickens at the time was attempting to move up, marry someone far from his own lowly circumstances. It’s the very British obsession with class, a theme not only in Dickens’ subsequent novels but those of most of his nineteenth-century peers. Yes, Dickens and his wife had many children, but the marriage was cold from the beginning (they eventually separated). Hauser suggests that the biggest reason for the failure of the relationship was because of the writer’s seduction by a much more passionate woman.

Wingate’s origins are also lower class, but—in spite of his willingness to kill someone in order to advance himself—he is also impotent, a subject that was certainly forbidden to Dickens and other writers of the time. On two occasions, the man has used beautiful women in order to advance his career—in Amanda’s case, marrying her. Both women were prostitutes, and there are some seedy and grizzly scenes in Hauser’s story of the ruthless businessmen that—were they based on an actual person—could easily be seen as catalysts for Dickens’ subsequent concern with the poor, especially women. The writer had his own share of poverty as a child and as a young man, so the combination of those experiences and the stories of the two beautiful ex-prostitutes in The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens add to the story’s credibility. It could have happened, i.e., Dickens might not have been a virgin when he married; he might have met women who were ruthlessly brutalized by men who picked them up from the streets.

There are other interesting speculations in Hauser’s faked memoir and plenty of one-line observations such as “I was a mismarried man.” I was particularly taken by the writer’s remark: “If I stop writing, I will die.” That’s as profound an analysis of Dickens’ enormous productivity as anything I can imagine. I’m less taken by musings such as the following—which I agree with but am not certain Dickens himself would articulate, even in a memoir designed for publications many years after his death:

“My great ambition has been to live in the hearts and homes of the English people through the truthful telling of English life. Future generations will find in my writing, London and the English people as they have been in my time. I have tried without cessation to give common men and women a voice so that they may be heard and to use my fame and talent to combat the sordid oppression of their daily lives.”

Thomas Hauser should be given credit for assimilating and then processing so much of Charles Dickens’ life—an enormous task by any standards. But the voice and even the tone of much of this novel are not always as convincing as they could be.

Thomas Hauser: The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens

Counterpoint, 176 pp., $23

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.