Aubrey Beardsley's Salome
As we ponder the decline of modern civilization -- represented by Anthony Weiner's sex talk and dirty pictures via Twitter -- we think back to the good old days, when marriage was sacred and, anyhow, there were no social networks, so that people weren't tempted by old flames or new.
Take Charles Dickens, the most popular English novelist of the Victorian era. You remember Charles -- the author of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and more -- much more. Dickens was a one-man factory, managing periodicals to which he contributed endless articles on political and social issues, as well as his annual Christmas tales, while editing the work of other contributors at the same time as he produced novel after novel for serial publication and he participated in theatrical works of his own and by other authors.
Dickens maintained an active social life, attending and giving parties for -- and traveling extensively with -- his literary friends; was keenly interested in politics and social reform his entire life; performed and directed innumerable plays; became a noted public reader of his works; actively ran a mission for street women to regain their social standing as well as contributing time and money to any number of other philanthropies; was a good and generous friend -- and, oh, did I mention that he was a great reader and correspondent, and often walked up to 20 miles in a day?
DIckens had a delightful childhood with his sister Fanny -- for a short while. But, as a pre-teen, he was sent to work ten-hour days at a shoe-blacking factory, from which he was only rescued by an unexpected family inheritance. Thereafter, he gained some mediocre -- and often abusive, as portrayed in Copperfield -- schooling. Given his minimal education, Dickens' ability to generate so much original and delightful material seems to have stemmed from a natural-born and self-made genius.
Perhaps due to his own circumstances, with a ne'er-do-well father and uncaring mother, Dickens himself was a model father, playing with and adoring his children, including summer seaside family vacations (don't ask me how one person found all this time to do so much in so many arenas of life). Dickens had quite a brood to preside over -- 10 children with his wife, Catherine, with whom he had a mutually devoted and caring bond.
For a good long while. But, all along, Dickens displayed discontent with his obliging wife's limitations of intellect and charisma. For one thing, Dickens became enamored of Catherine's younger sister, Mary, who came to live with them, but then died suddenly at an unconscionably early age. Dickens never forgot Mary, and included her as a character in one form or another in much of his subsequent fiction.
This longing by Dickens eventually grew to inordinate dimensions, finally leading him to create a more satisfying intimate relationship with Ellen Ternan -- an actress in one of his productions -- when he was 45, and with whom he surreptitiously lived (never divorcing his wife -- this was the Victorian era) until his death at 59.
But, not long before meeting Ternan, Dickens had an unusual chance to rectify an unrequited relationship from his youth. You see, his first love -- Maria Beadnell -- had rejected Dickens out of a lack of ardor for him due principally to his lack of cash and prospects. But that had changed considerably when, ten years after Maria married the manager of a saw mill, out of the blue she contacted Dickens.
How did the ostensibly happily-married and devoted family man respond? "He was suddenly flooded with nostalgia for his old 'Copperfield days' (that is, his youth). 'Three or four and twenty years vanished like a dream,' he told Maria in his reply to her letter, which he had opened, he said, 'with the touch of my young friend David Copperfield when he was in love'."
Uh-oh! Where is this headed?
We only know about Dickens' side of the correspondence, since only his letters survived. Given his sense of propriety, the ever-decorous Dickens burned all of the personal correspondence in his possession later in life in a giant bon fire.
In the surviving letters, Dickens "blends intense and vividly-detailed memories of his courting days with not-so-veiled reproaches of her for her failure to return his love." Here's how Dickens put it: "Whatever of fancy, romance, energy, passion, aspiration and determination belong to me, I never have separated and never shall separate from the hard-hearted little woman -- you -- whom it is nothing to say I would have died for, with the greatest alacrity!" The man had a gift for words!
Meanwhile, "Maria seems to have been swept along -- as well she might have been -- by the torrent of emotion that her 'busy and pleasant' letter had released in this man, now loved and idolised by millions" (this author is so cynical).
They arranged to meet! Where is this headed!?
At their meeting, Dickens "found himself confronted with a stout woman of fourty-four" (while all that compulsive walking left Dickens quite trim), and his ardor instantly cooled.
They should have Tweeted pictures ahead of time.
Quotes are from Michael Slater's Charles Dickens.
P.S. June 19, 2011. While producing and directing a highly technical sea voyage play -- of which he was the star and during which he would meet the woman who supplanted his wife (which he co-wrote with friend and colleague, novelist Wilkie Collins) -- according to Slater:
It is astonishing enough to think of Dickens master-minding all this activity and working towards what he was confident would be the most stupendous effect he had yet produced as an actor while at the same time continuing to write such a profound and complex work as Little Dorrit. But it becomes still more so when when we remember that he was also as assiduous as ever in his 'conductorial' attention to Household Words (the monthly periodical of which he was the captain), and his work for Urania Cottage (the charity for street women which he sheperded).
And don't forget his mad social whirl, large and chaotic household, and those long jaunts.
Slater continues: "But the keen delight that he always took in his own 'inimitable' virtuosity, powers of concentration, and seemingly inexhaustible exergy seems to have more than sustained him."