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August 10, 2012

The joy and pain of being celebrity Charles Dickens

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“The life of almost any man possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself,” Charles Dickens wrote in the essay “Landor’s Life” in 1869.

Dickens was addressing what almost any person of talent, fame or accomplishment must confront in themselves: How much of their life, their self, their soul is sacrificed to their art, their public, their pursuit of excellence.

Dickens was a complicated man, a protean personality, who developed almost a compulsive need for the spotlight, as countless Dickens biographers have attested. In Claire Tomalin’s biography, “Charles Dickens: A Life” she recounts him as someone with an almost pathological ability to reinvent himself. Dickens, by her account, had more than multiple personalities. He was, “The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveler. The satirist, the surrealist, the mesmerist. The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father.”

It was upon his visit to America, however, that Dickens’ craving for public attention and adoration crested within him, compromising his ability live a healthy life. As Joyce Carol Oates writes in her review of Tomalin’s biography in the New York Review of Books, Dickens possessed “a curious admixture of innocent authorly vanity, a shrewd desire to make as much money as possible, and what comes to seem to the reader a malignant, ever-metastasizing desire for self-destruction.”

In other words, the more attention he got from his public, the more attention he needed.

“Dicken’s delight in his large and uncritical audiences shifts by degrees to an addiction to public performing,” writes Carol Oates. “[L]ike Mark Twain, he quickly came to see that public performing paid more than writing, and was much easier, at least in the short run. Dickens’s need for the immediate gratification of public performing is both tonic and masochistic; consumed by vanity, the celebrated writer is consuming his very self.”

In a culture where the aspiration for fame and fortune is ubiquitous and unrelenting, best to note the consequences on the other side of celebrity. Dickens had a horrible marriage, sometimes hated his ten children and wound up abandoning his wife, whom Carol Oates describes as the “plain, placid, passive woman” Catherine Hogarth, for his mistress, the ex-actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan.

No, indeed, not all great achievements are born of a balanced life. But there are terrors in greatness that augur an end in which the difference between the warmth of loving arms and self-annihilation is indistinguishable. With Dickens we admire the word more than the man.

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