The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Recently I was given a 1931 copy of a magazine called The Dickensian: A Quarterly Magazine for Dickens Lovers. My copy presents—among reports from far flung branches of the Dickens Fellowship—essays on the use of alcohol in Dickens’ novels, on his fictional waiters, and on the sources of the songs quoted by Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop.
You might call The Dickensian—which still exists, the most recent issue including an essay on Dickens in Norway—a scholarly fanzine.
Browsing in the magazine stirred me to look up a note I’d made while reading the most recent of the many Dickens biographies, Charles Dickens, A Life, by Claire Tomalin. I had read and admired some of Tomalin’s earlier books, including her biography of Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ secret lover in his later years, and she struck me as wise in her use of sources and astute in her reading of human character.
The passage I noted comes from a letter Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett Coutts, a rich woman who was the main financial support of his Home for Homeless Women. “All people who have led hazardous and forbidden lives” he writes to her, “are, in a certain sense imaginative; and if their imaginations are not filled with good things, they will choke them, for themselves, with bad ones.”
Here we find Dickens, who, we like to think, represented an ideal of Victorian propriety, offering a view of crime and delinquency as natural expressions of the imagination—a modernist and subversive position if there ever was one. Maybe it’s a little less surprising when we recall that Dickens habitually walked for hours through the night streets of London when he was working on a book, stirring himself up, observing faces, stimulating his power of invention. Part of the vast energy of his work springs from the mental state created or sustained by these mysterious night walks.
STOP THE PRESS, as they used to say, when newspapers took pride in
carrying the latest news with the most accurate details.
I had intended to go on from this point to discuss a conversation between Dickens and Dostoevsky on the subject of good and evil, a conversation described in two recent biographies. It is widely known that Dostoevsky began to read Dickens during his Siberian imprisonment for political activities, and an article in The Dickensian for 2002 offers quotations from a Dostoevsky letter about his conversation with Dickens.
I found myself curious about the language of this conversation. It seemed unlikely that Dostoevsky spoke English, and while Dickens spoke French, it’s unthinkable that he would have spoken Russian.
I turned to Google.
“Did Dostoevsky speak English?” I asked, and almost the first site that turned up presented a series of recent posts, the most remarkable of them being from a well-informed reader whose first language was Russian. He was highly sceptical about the Dostoevsky letter describing a meeting with Dickens and was unable to find any Russian source. Another scholar found that the Russian magazine in which the letter was purportedly first published seemed not to exist. Editors of The Dickensian tried to contact the writer of their original article, only to be told that the author had been severely injured in a car accident and was unable to communicate with them. Claire Tomalin has said she plans to withdraw the material from new editions of her book.
So The Dickensian’s article appears to be a remarkable literary hoax. For a few years the fabrication became a part of history. Now it’s a footnote on falsity. But the meeting of the two giants ought to have happened. Both had vast imaginative resources and an intense preoccupation with good and evil, crime and punishment. Both were fascinated by “hazardous and forbidden lives.” Yes, the imagination says, they ought to have met and spoken, perhaps in French.
Too bad it’s not true.