Book review: The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens
Reading this expertly edited book is like listening to the work of an already uninhibited court maestro who has been let further off the leash
On April 19, 1842, while in Cincinnati, Charles Dickens wrote a brief note to Rebecca Nichols, thanking her for her letter about The Old Curiosity Shop. It reads, in full: "My dear madam, I am very much obliged to you for your beautiful lines on the death of Nell, which I have read with great interest and pleasure. Believe me, faithfully yours, Charles Dickens."
The footnote offers context: "Rebecca Nichols [1819-1903], poet and newspaper editor, then living in Cincinnati. Her poem, commemorating Nell in spring, summer and autumn, began: 'Spring, with breezes cool and airy/ Opened on a little fairy'."
In those few lines we can see what a good editor Professor Jenny Hartley is. First, she has included Dickens' letter, which does not, on the face of it, look interesting at all, except perhaps as an indication of his politeness to his public. Second, she has looked up the poem that occasioned the reply. This isn't hard to do, thanks to the digitising efforts of the Library of Congress, but she could still have thought her time better spent elsewhere. And third: she quotes all she has to of the poem, without comment.
Extracting this much from six lines isn't bad going, and when you think that Hartley had to plough through the 12 huge volumes of Dickens' surviving letters to make her selection (he burned thousands more, but in an age when Londoners could expect a reply from a letter within two hours, inevitably many escaped the bonfire), your admiration for her grows deeper.
There are others that are less ambiguous or formal. It's hard to say which are the best: they are all, in their way, good. Dickens was not known for his restraint in his exploration of the rhetorical potential of the English language, and reading this book is like listening to the work of an already uninhibited court maestro who has been let further off the leash.
The reason Dickens tended to burn his letters was, he said, because they captured him at unguarded moments - and they are all the better for it. We get an anonymously written letter about the exploitation of women and children by mine owners prior to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, for publication in the Morning Chronicle, which attacks the government with articulate fury.
There are musings about works that have been sidelined (such as Master Humphrey's Clock, a weekly periodical written by Dickens for a year and a half), and also about whether to murder Chapman and Hall, his publishers. In short, the book bursts with the author's energy, and you will love him and know him better after reading even a few of these letters.
The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens edited by Jenny Hartley (Oxford University Press)