From the massive 12-volume The Letters of Charles Dickens, editor Hartley (English Literature/Roehampton Univ.; Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, 2008, etc.) selects letters that illuminate the dimensions of Dickens’ mind, the range of his interests and the scale of his moods and passions.
No one will ever write like this again, not in this brave new world of e-mail, emoticons and textual truncation. Dickens was an epistolary phenomenon. He wrote often (thousands of letters), with great fluidity and wit and at great length. In an early, heartbroken letter to a young woman who had dismissed him, he reeled off a 141-word sentence that basically said, “I am returning some things you gave me.” He wrote to the high and the low, to geniuses and wannabes and fans and fools alike. Hartley includes samples of letters to Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, William Makepeace Thackeray and Michael Faraday. In an 1862 letter to Wilkie Collins about Collins’ novel-in-progress No Name, Dickens interrupts his praise to teach his friend the difference between “lie” and “lay.” Among responses to pious people wondering why Dickens’ stories weren’t more patently Christian are work-a-day samples of Dickens in his roles as husband, father, writer, editor, friend and colleague. Dickens also wrote to friends about his travels to the United States. During his first visit to our shores in 1842, he was a bit more caustic about us than he was in 1867. Of great interest are his letters about his works-in-progress and his furtive affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Hartley, who reproduces the annotations from the complete edition, wisely stays out of the way and lets her gifted principal command the stage.
Savory appetizers that will cause curious readers to order the full 12-course meal.