Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

Beethoven books

November 19, 2020

Impressions by his Contemporaries
O.G. Sonneck (Ed.)
(Dover, 1967) [1926]
272 p.

The Beethoven Quartets
Joseph Kerman
(OUP, 1967)
380 p.

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony
And Other Writings
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(Oxford, 1953)
172 p.

The Year of Our Lord 2020 has been many things, most of them not particularly endearing, but it has had this going for it: Beethoven, had he lived somewhat longer than he did, would this year have celebrated his 250th birthday. To mark the occasion I took up a few books about the great man.


The Dover volume is a delightful treasure-chest: it gathers up the personal recollections of many people who met Beethoven, or knew him well, giving us an unusually intimate angle on the man and his life. The recollections range from the rough and simple — from an old man, for instance, who lived across from the Beethovens when Ludwig was a boy — to the highest of high brow — Goethe. Some were written by Beethoven’s intimate friends, some by his compositional rivals, and some by mere admirers who happened to meet him once and remembered it for the rest of their lives.

When we think of Beethoven, we (or, not to generalize unduly, I) tend to think of the brash, proud artist who dominated European music and knew it. That Beethoven is here, to some extent. We hear, for instance, the famous anecdote about the time he refused to give way in the street to the Empress and a group of Dukes, saying to his companion, “Keep hold of my arm, they must make room for us, not we for them.” We get the story about how, upon being told that certain intervals in one of his pieces were forbidden “by all the theoreticians”, he responded, “But I allow them!” We hear a few stories about how he tweaked the vanity of his compositional rivals (by, for example, on one memorable occasion, improvising a cheeky musical commentary on a theme of a rival played upside down).

Other well-known stories about Beethoven appear in this volume: his angry cancellation of his third symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, his humiliated reaction to the failure of the premiere of his opera, his rather humorous antics at the podium when conducting his music (and the manner in which the comedy turned to pathos when he lost the ability to hear the orchestra he was leading).

We also get a few glimpses of Beethoven the mystic, the musical genius who bestrode his age and whose musical utterances were treated as oracles in certain quarters. The composer Ignaz von Seyfried, for instance, recollecting one of Beethoven’s famous piano improvisations, wrote that:

When once he began to revel in the finite world of tones, he was transported also above all earthly things; — his spirit had burst all restricting bonds, shaken off the yokes of servitude, and soared triumphantly and jubilantly into the luminous spaces of the higher aether.

We also learn that Beethoven was a

man filled with a sacred fire, who bore his God in his heart, and in whose soul, perhaps, there blossomed forth a springtime of paradisiacal mildness amid all this uproar of the elements.

At least he said “perhaps”. My appetite for this sort of thing is quite limited, though it would be churlish to doubt that Beethoven’s piano recitals were memorable and moving occasions for many of those who heard them.

At the other end of the spectrum, we read about how Beethoven’s late compositions challenged the expectations of his listeners, many of whom received them as evidence of his decline. Louis Spohr, himself an accomplished but conservative composer, described the finale of the Ninth Symphony as “monstrous and tasteless”, and Beethoven’s late works in general as “wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful’. It’s hard not to smile at such appraisals now.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the stories here gathered together is that the Beethoven they reveal is actually quite a different sort of man from the “revolutionary artist” reputation that he had, then and now, in certain quarters. We hear from a number of people who, seeing him seated alone and looking surly, were afraid to speak to him — a man too great, it seemed, for the hoi polloi. But almost without fail that forbidding exterior dropped away when the man was actually approached and engaged: he was generous, kind, happy to talk, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the attention. He sat alone and looked surly, perhaps, because he couldn’t easily carry on a conversation. (Those who did try to talk to him had to write down their side of the encounter.) It was cheering for me to see this side of Beethoven appear so often and to so many different admirers.

Best of all are the anecdotes that reveal Beethoven’s own love of music, and the love his music engendered in others who heard him with understanding and appreciation. I was surprised to learn that Beethoven regarded Handel as “the master of all masters”, and, we are told, even quoted from Messiah on his deathbed (saying, “My day’s work is done; if a physician still can be of use in my case (and then he lapsed into English) his name shall be called wonderful.”). Beethoven once, as a young boy, improvised at the piano for Mozart, and in his maturity regarded “The Magic Flute” as Mozart’s greatest work; “Don Giovanni” he apparently disliked, mostly on account of its subject matter. And I would not have guessed that he would name Cherubini as the greatest opera composer of his day, but he did. I laughed at the story of how Franz Liszt, as a boy of just 11 years, played for Beethoven; Liszt recalled that

Beethoven asked me whether I could play a Bach fugue. I chose the C-minor Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavichord. “And could you also transpose the Fugue at once into another key?” Beethoven asked me. Fortunately I was able to do so.

Of course you were, Franz.

Beethoven’s health took a turn for the worse late in 1826. A long parade of people, distinguished and not, came to pay their respects. He passed away on 26 March 1827, one of the most celebrated men of his age.


The biographical side of Beethoven, be it ever so interesting, is nonetheless only a sideshow. The music is the main thing. I’ve been celebrating this anniversary year with a lavish listening project that has taken me through all of the symphonies, piano sonatas, piano concertos, major choral works, and string quartets. It was to help me better appreciate the latter that I picked up Joseph Kerman’s volume. Kerman was reputed one of the best musicologists of his generation whose writings were accessible not just to scholars but to educated music lovers as well. It is a very good book.

It is also, to my detriment, a rather technical book. Kerman is a capable analyst of the harmonic structure of Beethoven’s quartets, and devotes a healthy chunk of the book to that happy pastime. I, however, was not able to follow him beyond the shallows. Consequently I eventually fell to skimming over these sections, without much benefit. I will also note an odd thing: the book is full of musical examples in score, but the text itself does not reference the examples; presumably I am meant to know which example is pertinent to the particular point he is making, but, more often than not, I did not know.

Kerman’s love for the quartets comes through strongly. He is not afraid to point out weaknesses where he sees them, but he knows that he is grappling mostly with masterpieces. (His favourite, by the way, appears to be Op.131.) I can’t say that reading the book has greatly increased my appreciation of the quartets, but while I was reading I listened to them a lot, and that has increased my appreciation. Count this one a second-hand victory.


Kerman is an able critic, but I picked up Vaughan Williams’ little book to learn what a great composer thinks of Beethoven. I admit I came away somewhat disappointed. Not to spoil the book for prospective readers, but Vaughan Williams likes the Ninth Symphony, for the most part, although there are bits that he doesn’t like. You don’t say? He gets a little technical, but not anything like Kerman. The most endearing parts of the essay are those in which he takes some good spirited digs at the modernist composers, such as Debussy and Stravinsky and Prokofiev, for whom “every other two bars of their compositions could be cut out without losing any music”. It’s not true, but I don’t mind it coming from Vaughan Williams.

More interesting to me have been the “Other Writings” collected in the same volume. There is a short piece on the simple joys of sound and harmony, a defence of nationalism in music, and in particular of an English preference for English music, a warm appreciation of the music of Gustav Holst, and a spirited, if finally unconvincing, argument in favour of playing older music, such as that of Bach, with modern instruments and with modern sensibilities.

One of the best pieces is an essay on the challenges and rewards of composing music for films; he proposes that music should be part of the organic structure of a film from the beginning, not pasted on at the end, though I think it is still true today that film music is normally an afterthought. Even those filmmakers who make best use of music — Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino — usually do so with pre-existing music, rather than music composed specifically for the film.

Vaughan Williams worked for several years on a hymnal for the English church, and he has a fine little essay celebrating the beautiful hymn tunes produced over the centuries by English church musicians. (His exemplar is “Miles Lane”.) He remarks that spending time with those tunes did more for his composing than any amount of formal study could have done, and praises the value of hard work in a practical music context, which, he notes, in another grumpy appraisal, turned even Mahler into “a very tolerable imitation of a composer”.

After the lead essay, the longest in the collection is a “musical autobiography”, in which he traces the course of, and notes the primary influences on, his musical development. His education intersected with the lives of Stanford, Parry, and (or nearly) Elgar, and I found it a quite fascinating story. But, I admit, it is a story that takes us down an inexcusably tangential path when our attention is supposed to be on Beethoven, so I will save it for, perhaps, another time.


For an envoi, let’s hear the Op.131 quartet, played here by the Alban Berg Quartet. Happy birthday, Beethoven.

Johnson: Life of Savage

March 2, 2017

Life of Mr Richard Savage
Samuel Johnson

On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.

johnson-savageCases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.

Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.

Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:

[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.

Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:

To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.

And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:

This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.

It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:

Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.

Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”


One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:

O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.


The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.


In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:

[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.

[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.

[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.

[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.

[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.

On Samuel Johnson

December 13, 2015

The Life of Johnson
James Boswell
(Everyman’s Library, 1993) [1791]
1344 p.

Samuel Johnson
W. Jackson Bate
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975)
668 p.

“Fate wings with ev’ry wish the afflictive dart”
— “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

Samuel Johnson is one of those rare figures who can take up a permanent place in one’s moral and imaginative life. A colossal genius, one of the English language’s great masters, a probing moralist, and a man of great personal courage and fortitude, one can walk around him and find something admirable from every vantage point. In his excellent biography, W. Jackson Bate comments that as our familiarity with Johnson improves “we begin to think of him as almost an allegorical figure, like “Valiant-for-Truth” in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and this I have found to be quite true.

johnsonI dare say Johnson is unique in English letters for having a reputation derived to a very great extent from things he did not write down. We admire his writing, of course — his great Dictionary, his “Preface to Shakespeare”, his many moral essays, his novella Rassalas — but Johnson himself towers over his pen. And we know about Johnson the man principally through the massive Life which James Boswell assembled over the course of their long friendship, and in which, with quiet tenacity, he faithfully recorded Johnson’s conversation at table, among friends, or in London society, or at home. The Life is one of our great biographical treasure troves. For my private enjoyment I’ve assembled page after page of memorable quotations and winsome stories plundered from its pages.

In fact, so central has been Boswell’s role in bringing Johnson to later generations, it is a little startling to be reminded, as Bate reminds us, that Boswell did not meet Johnson until he (Johnson) was already in his 50s, and that over the 21 years of their friendship they were actually in one another’s company for only about 300 days (excluding their several months’ excursion to Scotland). Fully half of the Life covers just the last 8 years of Johnson’s life. There were social connections important to Johnson, such as that with the Thrale family, of which Boswell had little direct knowledge. Even the common honorific “Dr Johnson” is due mainly to Boswell’s influence; Johnson himself preferred to be called simply “Mr Johnson”. In this respect a biography like Bate’s is valuable for filling in the background and rounding out the figure.

To be fair, there is a good deal more to Bate’s biography than just “filling in” and “rounding out”. It is an ambitious effort to come to grips with Johnson in all of his considerable complexity. Because of the wider variety of sources informing it it arguably tells us more about Johnson than Boswell does. Bate is a sensitive reader, and seems to have a secure footing even when stepping through the murky waters of Johnson’s slough of despond. Having said that, in the end Boswell will bury all other biographers.

Johnson was praised in his own day for his originality (“He said even the commonest things in the newest manner”), his courage and honesty, his humour (“the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth” [Johnson]), and his intellectual range. In his biography of Francis Bacon, Johnson described Bacon as “a strong mind operating upon life,” and admirers of Johnson have found the phrase just as apt when applied to Johnson himself. Boswell summarized this aspect of Johnson’s character thus:

“His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom.”

Johnson suffered greatly throughout his life. He was, from childhood, afflicted with serious physical ailments, including blindness in one eye and more or less continual pain. Despite his intellectual gifts, his finances prevented his obtaining a university degree. He struggled with self-discipline, constantly renewing his resolve to rise early, work diligently, and retire early to bed, and constantly failing in his resolve. He battled a lasting fear of insanity, and suffered recurring black humours that today we would probably call depression. He was ever alert to the dangers proceeding from “the treachery of the human heart.” He combined a trust in Providence with an unsentimental appraisal of the hardships of living, and was known to become very angry with anyone who ventured to deny the unhappiness of life. Perhaps because of this suffering, he was generous and compassionate with those in need. He lived modestly, and took into his home a rotating group of destitute guests.

On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a paralytic stroke, an injury from which he was never to fully recover. Of this experience he wrote, rather endearingly, that “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse.” Some months later, on 13 December 1784, he died. Boswell writes that it was William Gerard Hamilton who best expressed the feelings of Johnson’s friends upon his passing:

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: There is nobody. — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

It is a fitting encomium on a life well-lived.

On Dickens

January 17, 2013

Peter Ackroyd
(HarperCollins, 1990)
1234 p.

Charles Dickens
G.K. Chesterton
(Readers’ Club, 1942) [1906]
254 p.


During the Dickens bicentennial year, I made a resolution to read at least a few of his novels and to tackle Peter Ackroyd’s doorstop of a biography, which had been sitting on my shelf for several years. As it turned out, I managed to read only one novel (Martin Chuzzlewit), but I did succeed in finishing not only Ackroyd’s biography, but Chesterton’s as well. Here I am, a few weeks late, to say a few [sic] words about them.

(I might add that anyone not sufficiently doughty to read all of what follows could nonetheless skip to the end, where I have appended a number of Chesterton’s keener remarks on our subject. It would be a pity to miss them.)


Literary biographies are a strange sub-genre. Do you want to know what a great writer’s life was like? Well, he spent much of each day sitting at a desk. Exciting, isn’t it? Yet it is natural to feel some curiosity about the personality of a writer whose imagination has created stories and characters we love. Both sides of the coin are especially relevant to Dickens, for a writer as prolific as he certainly did spend a great deal of time at a desk, and he did create (in Ackroyd’s words) “the richest gallery of fictional characters ever to have issued from the imagination of one man.”

Dickens rose to greatness from humble beginnings. Born into a downwardly-mobile middle-class family, he was embarrassed as a young boy when his father had debt troubles and was confined for a time to the Marshalsea prison. Dickens was himself forced to take employment in a blacking factory to help with the family finances, a circumstance which occasioned such deep shame that he concealed it his entire life from all but his closest friends; we may speculate that his special concern for the happiness of the poor was rooted in these experiences of labour and poverty. But, these episodes aside, his childhood was in many respects a happy one: he wandered the streets of London — that city which he was to make his own in such an extraordinary way — exploring the thoroughfares and byways, watching the people come and go with a facility and sensitivity for detail that astonished his friends throughout his life. “Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street,” says Chesterton, “His stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street.” City streets were, in a sense, his home; his stories are not those of drawing rooms and manor houses, but of alleys, sidewalks, and bridges, and the bustle of London’s streets was always a comfort and an inspiration to him.

As a young man he took up a career in journalism, principally covering politics. It was not, it would seem, the most promising course for a man of such prodigious imagination, but the hasty press of the newspaper business appealed to him, and even in his journalistic writings it is possible to descry occasional glimpses of his comic sensibility. (Ackroyd notes that, of a politician who muddled a speech, Dickens filed a report noting that “Lord Lincoln broke down, and sat down.”) Then, in the mid-1830s, when Dickens was in his early 20s, he began contributing short fictional sketches under the pseudonym “Boz”, and though they are little read today, they generated enough attention at the time for him to be approached by a publisher with a proposal: he was asked to write an open-ended series of sketches about the adventures of the members of a sporting club. Dickens accepted the proposal, and set to work. He began with a character named Pickwick, and his sketches eventually produced one of the great comic masterpieces of English literature. Says Chesterton in his entry on Dickens for the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

The track of the story wandered; the tone of the story changed; a servant whom Pickwick found cleaning boots in an inn-yard took the centre of the stage and towered even over Pickwick; Pickwick from being a pompous buffoon became a generous and venerable old English gentleman; and the world still followed that incredible transformation-scene and wishes there were more of it to this day. This was the emergence of Dickens into literature.

The Pickwick Papers brought him fame throughout England. Both Ackroyd and Chesterton comment on the remarkable range of his popularity: his stories were relished by high-society connoisseurs and by the poor labouring classes, even those who were illiterate. An early biographer noted that “I found [a locksmith] reading Pickwick. . .to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women, and children.” Chesterton argues that the special appeal of Dickens to the poor was rooted in his comic vision of ordinary life (“He was to make men feel that this dull middle class was actually a kind of Elfland.”) and that his broad popularity is evidence for the deep vein of truth his fiction touches (“In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens.”) I was interested to learn that for many years, long after he had unquestionably become the most famous and successful author in England, Dickens was worried by the thought that his inspiration would desert him and that he would fall from the public’s graces back into a life of poverty. It is true that the size of his readership fluctuated from book to book during his lifetime, but he was always popular, and — though of course he could not have known this — for a long time after his death each successive edition of his books sold better than the one before. I don’t believe that any of his books has ever been out of print.

He did much more than write novels too. I was surprised to learn that throughout his life he took on side projects, ranging from writing and performing in amateur theatrical productions (which was always an intense passion of his) to editing journals and newspapers. In the beginning his intention was to maintain a safety net for himself should his literary fortunes fade, but he continued with side projects long after they ceased to be financially necessary. It is fair to say that he was, in modern parlance, a “workaholic”: he was unable to sit still or relax for long, and was most content, after a fashion, when burdened with large amounts of work. Since work is a curse, I cannot help seeing this as a character defect, and indeed it is one of the few things I do not like about the man.

Late in life Dickens began a series of very successful dramatic readings of his own books, both in Britain and in America. This was a novelty at the time, and people flocked to see the great man giving voice to the many beloved characters he had created. (What I would give for an audio recording of one of those evenings!) Peter Ackroyd does a particularly fine job conveying the atmosphere of these occasions and the intensity of Dickens’ portrayals. His final reading, which marked Dickens’ withdrawal from public life and had received great advance publicity, is captured with particular pathos. Following the reading, Dickens addressed his audience:

“. . . From these garish lights I vanish now for ever more, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” There was a brief hush in the audience followed by something very like a common sigh and then, as his son recalled, “a storm of cheering as I have never seen equalled in my life”. His head was bowed and the tears were streaming down his face as he left the platform.

Some months later, at the age of just 58, Dickens died, and was quietly buried in Westminster Abbey. Many commentators have argued that his early death was due to his constant overwork, and in particular to the grueling schedule of public readings that he maintained. Chesterton, in his inimitable way, agrees: “He died of popularity.”


What sort of a man was Dickens? Those who knew him in society routinely noted his vivacity, his verbal quickness, and his restless manner. He often dressed flamboyantly, in loud colours, with something of the air of a dandy. People often noted his astonishing powers of observation, his seeming capacity to take in a scene in remarkable detail, and to assess character with a facility that sometimes unnerved acquaintances. Henry James, after meeting Dickens, highlighted this aspect of his personality, while also (characteristically) seeing deeper into it than most; he noted “. . .a straight inscrutability, a merciless military eye, I might have pronounced it, an automatic hardness, in fine, which at once indicated to me, and in the most interesting way in the world, a kind of economy of apprehension. . .” He loved social occasions, and the theatre, and the busy streets of the city; “a long walk in the noisy streets would act upon him like a tonic”.

He was a very disciplined man, in his way. Certainly he was a disciplined writer: he would customarily write each day from 9 am – 2 pm, “like clockwork”. He sat at his desk looking out of a window, and he averaged about 2000 words each day. When writing he would sometimes leave his chair and stand before a mirror, observing himself as he acted out the dialogue he intended to write, trying out facial expressions and tones of voice. He was, in fact, a very visual writer, who placed great stress on the illustrations accompanying his stories and often looked to them for inspiration. While working he required absolute silence in the house, which was something of a burden to his family. He stressed the value of punctuality and order to his servants. He filled his house with mirrors, and almost always wanted a window left open.

At home he was frequently impatient and compulsive. Chesterton captures this side of his personality well:

Everything must be put right, and put right at once, with him. If London bored him, he must go to the Continent at once; if the Continent bored him, he must come back to London at once. If the day was too noisy, the whole household must be quiet; if night was too quiet, the whole household must wake up. Above all, he had the supreme character of the domestic despot — that his good temper was, if possible, more despotic than his bad temper. When he was miserable (as he often was, poor fellow), they only had to listen to his railings. When he was happy they had to listen to his novels.

He would not abide criticism of himself, and would go to great lengths to defend himself against even frivolous charges, both at home and in society. On such occasions, notes Chesterton, “even in being on the right side he was in the wrong place”, for he wasted a great deal of energy to little purpose. He cannot have been easy to live with, and his inability to consider that he might be wrong, coupled with his impulsiveness and apparent lack of concern for the impact of his whims on the lives of others, was surely a factor in the eventual failure of his marriage. We are left with the impression of a man so carried away by his own energies that he often ran rough-shod, wittingly or not, over the lives of his family and friends.

Occasionally his letters reveal glimpses of more pedestrian aspects of his life and personality that nonetheless round out our picture of him: Ackroyd writes of “How he liked to bathe in cold water in the mornings; how he read The Times every day; how he never wore a nightcap; how he carried a Gladstone bag with him on his travels; how he autographed his bottles of wine; how he was a good carpenter and “handy man”; how he hated to be called “Sir”; how his favourite colour was light orange; how he preferred cold, bright weather; how he had a mania for opening windows to the fresh air; how he kept his own books neatly in a row, in the order of their publication; how he wrote out instructions to the various servants about their various duties; how he loved candle-light; how the flag was hoisted above the house when he was in residence.” I don’t know that I have ever heard of anyone else for whom orange was a favourite colour.


A great deal might be written about Dickens’ politics, but I shall dispatch the subject quickly. He has, of course, especially on the strength of novels like Oliver Twist or Hard Times, been associated with “radical” policies aimed at reforming society to improve the lot of the poor and vulnerable, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that he was, to use the modern parlance, a man “of the left”. He did have a special concern for social problems surrounding child labour, poor education, industrialism, and so forth, and his own novels were widely credited with motivating reforms along those lines in English society, but he was also an advocate of strict public morals and a harsh penal system, and he expressed abhorrence of mobs and revolutions. He thought government should have some involvement in education and sanitation, but not much else. To my great surprise, he actually took the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War! (“He believed the Federal cause to be based on dollars and cents with the anti-slavery cry as no more than mere camouflage for the grosser economic motives.” [Ackroyd]) But his political opinions may in the end not bear much scrutiny, for his thinking was not fundamentally political in nature, and his political principles remained largely inchoate. Ackroyd writes, “It could be said… that his political principles sprang from emotional needs and not from argument; as a result they are not really susceptible to rationalisation, and cannot be said to form a coherent whole […] He knew what he was against but found it far more difficult to give a convincing or even half-substantial idea of what precisely he was for.”


Great barrels of ink have been spilled over Dickens’ religious views, and controversy remains. One camp maintains that he was basically a faithful, if largely dispassionate, member of the Church of England; in their defence they can cite The Life of Our Lord, a narrative of the New Testament which Dickens wrote for his children, Dickens’ own avowal that “All my strongest illustrations are derived from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit”, and his reference, in private correspondence, to “the truth and beauty of the Christian religion”. He is known to have prayed every morning and evening. Others argue that his Christianity was nominal, diffuse, and un-doctrinal, and that he lacked any particularly strong religious commitment beyond “generalized benevolence”. He is on record as rejecting the “hard doctrines” of original sin and last judgement. In his novels, clergyman are never attractive figures, and churches are not attractive places (apart from an occasional dose of the picturesque).

As one would expect, both parties are on to something. Ackroyd writes that he “seems to possess a religious sensibility without any religious beliefs”, and Chesterton complains that he had “that dislike of defined dogmas, which really means a preference for unexamined dogmas”. He did, however, believe in Providence (and was therefore not a Deist) and good works, and he said that he saw the role of the novelist as reflecting that of God within the confines of the story, arranging things for the best. He disliked Catholics (and Anglo-Catholics) and Dissenters, and (we may safely surmise) anyone who took religion more seriously than him.

There is one fascinating episode in his religious history, however, which bears repeating. Ackroyd recounts that, during an extended stay at the Palazzo Peschiere in Genoa, Dickens had a dream of Mary Hogarth, the sister of his wife, who had died young and with whom Dickens had had a complicated relationship. Dickens, divining in the dream that he was communicating with the dead, posed a question: “But answer me one other question! What is the True religion? You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? Or perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?” Interestingly, the vision answered, “For you, it is the best.” This dream seems to have shaken Dickens for a time, but, perhaps because, as already noted, he had no great savour for self-examination, it seems to have eventually faded from his mind. On a later visit to Rome he expressed an “amused contempt” (Ackroyd) for the rites and accoutrements of Catholicism, which prompts Ackroyd to observe:

Not for him any understanding of the terrible consolations of the faith, nor of the history that supported its elaborate framework of worship. He was so out of sympathy with the Catholic Church that he saw only its surface. He saw its comedy. In this regard, at least, he had no real cultural or theoretical sensibility; he saw only the illusions and idiocies of the present, not the presence of the past.

Still, I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if that seed had fallen in more fertile soil. We shall never know!


I was going to say a few words about Dickens’ relationships with women, which is another of the subjects that rends the body politic and generates great fortunes for makers of ink, but frankly it doesn’t interest me enough.


The reason Dickens interests us at all is not because of his life, of course, but because of his books. Before wrapping up these notes I turn, therefore, to consider his place in our literature and the special qualities of his stories that continue to recommend them to our attention. It is here that Chesterton’s little book is invaluable, for it is teeming with insights about the attractions and greatness of Dickens’ fiction. It is the sort of book from which one is tempted to quote at length, and repeatedly. (I have not been able to resist this temptation; see below.) His is not an uncritical adulation — “He wrote an enormous amount of bad work,” Chesterton merrily concedes — but he nonetheless claims that, when time and the bell have buried the day, “Dickens will dominate the whole England of the nineteenth century; he will be left on that platform alone.”

Ackroyd seizes upon Dickens’ description of fairy tales as composed of “simplicity, and purity, and innocent extravagance” and applies it to Dickens’ own work. We find, he argues, in Dickens’ stories, “reality suffused with wild fancy so that it both is and is not the same”, and this is apt, I think, so far as it goes. We do have that feeling when reading him that the world which is recognizably our own has somehow been infused with more energy, as though everything were a little larger than life. “He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives,” writes Chesterton, “he saw all his cockney villas as top-heavy and wild, he saw every man’s nose twice as big as it was, and very man’s eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety. . .” Or again, “His art is like life, because, like life, it cares for nothing outside itself, and goes on its way rejoicing.”

For Chesterton Dickens’ claim to greatness resides principally in his characters, rather than his plots. Smiling, he writes that “Dickens’s characters are perfect as long as he can keep them out of his stories.” In another place he elaborates:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves. It was not the aim of Dickens to show the effect of time and circumstance upon a character; it was not even his aim to show the effect of a character on time and circumstance. . . Once the great characters are face to face, the ladder by which they climbed is forgotten and falls down, the structure of the story drops to pieces, the plot is abandoned; the other characters deserted at every kind of crisis; the whole crowded thoroughfare of the tale is blocked by two or three talkers, who take their immortal ease as if they were already in Paradise. For they do not exist for the story; the story exists for them; and they know it.

In his later novels Dickens put more stress on plot, working harder to ensure that they had a satisfying dramatic shape, rather than being episodic in the way his earlier books were, and in some sense this was an improvement — certainly it brought those later novels, like David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities into the orbit of other great works of nineteenth-century fiction — but Chesterton argues that this greater verisimilitude resulted in a neglect of his unique talents as a caricaturist. Acknowledging that the later works are more true to life, Chesterton nonetheless wistfully remarks that “He who remembers Pickwick and Pecksniff, creatures like Puck or Pan, may sometimes wonder whether the work had not most life when it was least lifelike.” Or, again (and it is evident that I am now just stitching together Chesterton’s thoughts, but what else can I do?), he writes rather wryly that

Those who have any doubt about Dickens can have no doubt of the superiority of the later books. Beyond question they have less of what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, if you are in the company of any ardent adorers of Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are), do not insist too urgently and exclusively on the splendour of Dickens’s last works, or they will discover that you do not like him.

Prior to reading Chesterton’s book, I would have counted myself among those who prefer his later books. I suppose that I still do, but I am now less confident in that judgement. I need to revisit the early books, especially The Pickwick Papers, with Chesterton’s argument in mind.

Now, there are (if I can speak in hushed tones for a moment) those who do not like Dickens at all. There are some who look askance at the buffoonery and high spirits and wish for something more refined. “If those people are ever refined it will be by fire,” is Chesterton’s response, but he does acknowledge that Dickens poses some special problems for modern critics. There is something in his writing that is out of temper with our times, a sense that a critical apparatus which can seize upon Thackeray or Eliot with a firm grip will somehow slip and grasp emptiness when applied to Dickens. Chesterton noted this already a century ago, and ascribed it to the powerful simplicity of Dickens’ genius:

Dickens has greatly suffered with the critics precisely through this stunning simplicity in his best work. The critic is called upon to describe his sensations while enjoying Mantalini and Micawber, and he can no more describe them than he can describe a blow in the face. Thus Dickens, in this self-conscious, analytical and descriptive age, loses both ways. He is doubly unfitted for the best modern criticism. His bad work is below that criticism. His good work is above it.

Or, if you do not find that convincing, perhaps some struggle with Dickens because he “exaggerated life in the direction of life”, whereas their inclination is in the other direction. “To them the impossibilities of Dickens seem much more impossible than they really are, because they are already attuned to the opposite impossibilities of Maeterlinck.”

Be that as it may, I like Dickens, and if you are still reading this (God bless you!), you must as well. We are free to enjoy our enjoyment, and to ponder its object. I will close with Chesterton’s “deepest lesson of Dickens” for our mutual consideration:

If we are to look for lessons, here at least is the last and deepest lesson of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the fixed figures of our life; the wife, the husband, the fool that fills the sky. It is true of the whole stream and substance of our daily experience; every instant we reject a great fool merely because he is foolish. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. Every day we lose the last sight of Jobling and Chuckster, the Analytical Chemist, or the Marchioness. Every day we are missing a monster whom we might easily love, and an imbecile whom we should certainly admire.

This is the real gospel of Dickens; the inexhaustible opportunities offered by the liberty and the variety of man. Compared with this life, all public life, all fame, all wisdom, is by its nature cramped and cold and small. For on that defined and lighted public stage men are of necessity forced to profess one set of accomplishments, to rise to one rigid standard. It is the utterly unknown people who can grow in all directions like an exuberant tree. It is in our interior lives that we find that people are too much themselves. It is in our private life that we find them swelling into the enormous contours, and taking on the colours of caricature. Many of us live publicly with featureless public puppets, images of the small public abstractions. It is when we pass our own private gate, and open our own secret door, that we step into the land of the giants.


Did I say that I was closing? Yes, but I’d first like to back away from Dickens himself to say a few quick words about the two books which have occasioned this post.

Ackroyd’s biography is a treasure-trove. He says at some point that during his research he had written out an index card for each day of Dickens’ life, and it shows: the level of detail is meticulous. He evades being tedious by the excellence of his writing and the thoughtfulness and affection that he brings to his subject; I can honestly say that I was never bored. In another place he remarks that in preparation for writing the book he read all of Dickens’ published work — both novels and correspondence — at least three times, not to mention reading the secondary literature listed in the bibliography (which runs to about 400 titles)! The book is a major accomplishment, which for any author could justly be considered the crown to a life’s work. That Ackroyd has also written over fifty (!) other books is all the more amazing. Interleaved with the biographical material are several imaginative fantasies: Dickens meeting his own characters in the streets of London, Dickens in conversation with Ackroyd, Ackroyd interviewing himself about his book, and so on. All of them are great fun. In the self-interview, Ackroyd asks himself, “Why did you decide to write the book in the first place?”, to which he replies, “I don’t know. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.” I love it.

I have already sung the praises of Chesterton’s book, but I can remember the tune: I could say that it is unquestionably among his finest literary criticism, which is true, but I would fail to convey just how insightful and delightful it is. Ackroyd says in his book that Chesterton is “perhaps Dickens’ best critic,” and it is easy to believe. As evidence, I will close with a string of quotations from the book that I was unable to work into the text of this post. Happy reading.


[Dickens’ talent for caricature]
We talk of the power of drawing people out; and that is the nearest parallel to the power of Dickens. He drew reels and reels of highly coloured caricature out of an ordinary person, as dazzlingly as a conjurer draws reels and reels of highly coloured paper out of an ordinary hat. But if anybody thinks the conjuring-trick is easy to perform, let him try it with the next ordinary person he sees. The exaggeration is always the logical extension of something that really exists; but genius appears, first in seeing that it exists, and second in seeing that it will bear to be thus exaggerated. That is something totally different from giving a man a long nose; it is the delicate surgical separation or extension of a living nerve. It is carrying a ludicrous train of thought further than the actual thinker carries it; but it requires a little thinking. It is making fools more gloriously foolish than they can be in this vale of tears; and it is not every fool who can do it.

[The character of Dickens’ stories]
Those who see in Dickens’s unchanging characters and recurring catch-words a mere stiffness and lack of living movement miss the point and nature of his work. His tradition is another tradition altogether; his aim is another aim altogether to those of the modern novelists who trace the alchemy of experience and the autumn tints of character. He is there, like the common people of all ages, to make deities; he is there, as I have said, to exaggerate life in the direction of life. The spirit he at bottom celebrates is that of two friends drinking wine together and talking through the night. But for him they are two deathless friends talking through an endless night and pouring wine from an inexhaustible bottle.

[Early and late Dickens]
That original violent vision of all things which he had seen from his boyhood began to be mixed with other men’s milder visions and with the light of common day. He began to understand and practise other than his own mad merits; began to have some movement towards the merits of other writers, towards the mixed emotion of Thackeray, or the solidity of George Eliot. And this must be said for the process; that the fierce wine of Dickens could endure some dilution. On the whole, perhaps, his primal personalism was all the better when surging against some saner restraints. . . For my own part, for reasons which I shall afterwards mention, I am in real doubt about the advantage of this realistic education of Dickens. I am not sure that it made his books better; but I am sure it made them less bad. He made fewer mistakes undoubtedly; he succeeded in eliminating much of the mere rant or cant of his first books; he threw away much of the old padding, all the more annoying, perhaps, in a literary sense, because he did not mean it for padding, but for essential eloquence. But he did not produce anything actually better than Mr. Chuckster. But then there is nothing better than Mr. Chuckster. Certain works of art, such as the Venus of Milo, exhaust our aspiration. Upon the whole this may, perhaps, be safely said of the transition. Those who have any doubt about Dickens can have no doubt of the superiority of the later books. Beyond question they have less of what annoys us in Dickens. But do not, if you are in the company of any ardent adorers of Dickens (as I hope for your sake you are), do not insist too urgently and exclusively on the splendour of Dickens’s last works, or they will discover that you do not like him.

[Why do some not like Dickens?]
It is evident, in short, why even those who admire exaggeration do not admire Dickens. He is exaggerating the wrong thing. They know what it is to feel a sadness so strange and deep that only impossible characters can express it: they do not know what it is to feel a joy so vital and violent that only impossible characters can express that. They know that the soul can be so sad as to dream naturally of the blue faces of the corpses of Baudelaire: they do not know that the soul can be so cheerful as to dream naturally of the blue face of Major Bagstock. They know that there is a point of depression at which one believes in Tintagiles: they do not know that there is a point of exhilaration at which one believes in Mr. Wegg. To them the impossibilities of Dickens seem much more impossible than they really are, because they are already attuned to the opposite impossibilities of Maeterlinck.

[Dickens’ literary genius]
His literary genius consisted in a contradictory capacity at once to entertain and to deride — very ridiculous ideas. If he is a buffoon, he is laughing at buffoonery. His books were in some ways the wildest on the face of the world. Rabelais did not introduce into Paphlagonia or the Kingdom of the Coqcigrues satiric figures more frantic and misshapen than Dickens made to walk about the Strand and Lincoln’s Inn. But for all that, you come, in the core of him, on a sudden quietude and good sense. Such, I think, was the core of Rabelais, such were all the far-stretching and violent satirists. This is a point essential to Dickens, though very little comprehended in our current tone of thought. Dickens was an immoderate jester, but a moderate thinker. He was an immoderate jester because he was a moderate thinker. What we moderns call the wildness of his imagination was actually created by what we moderns call the tameness of his thought. I mean that he felt the full insanity of all extreme tendencies, because he was himself so sane; he felt eccentricities, because he was in the centre. We are always, in these days, asking our violent prophets to write violent satires; but violent prophets can never possibly write violent satires. In order to write satire like that of Rabelais — satire that juggles with the stars and kicks the world about like a football — it is necessary to be one’s self temperate, and even mild. A modern man like Nietzsche, a modern man like Gorky, a modern man like d’Annunzio, could not possibly write real and riotous satire. They are themselves too much on the borderlands. They could not be a success as caricaturists, for they are already a great success as caricatures.

[Dickens’ sense of the strangeness of the world]
The chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness, and some prefer to call optimism, is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. And this word “eccentricity” brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter than any other. It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as “a strange world,” though he has seen no other. We feel that all there is is eccentric, though we do not know what is the centre. This sentiment of the grotesqueness of the universe ran through Dickens’s brain and body like the mad blood of the elves. He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top heavy and wild, he saw every man’s nose twice as big as it was, and very man’s eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety — the only real basis of any philosophical gaiety. This world is not to be justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not to be justified as the best of all possible worlds. Its merit is not that it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly unexplained. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.

The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

Ernest Shackleton

February 21, 2011

Ernest Shackleton is another of the great names associated with Antarctic exploration. Like Scott before him, he was a Navy man for whom Antarctica proved irresistible. Between the ages of 25 and 47 he was a part of four Antarctic expeditions, three of which he led himself.

His first taste of Antarctica came as a member of the Discovery Expedition, under the leadership of Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton held a fairly minor post in the expedition’s roster — third lieutenant — but he was one of three chosen to make an attempt on the South Pole during the Antarctic summer of 1902-3. The trip was not a success, making it barely half the distance to the Pole before turning around, but it did establish a new “furthest south” record, reaching latitude 82°17′. Shackleton was in ill health in the latter part of the trek, suffering from scurvy, and upon arriving back in camp he was shipped home to convalesce.

He was shipped home, which might have seemed an inglorious outcome, but, being the first expedition member to arrive back in England, there was a great deal of interest in him, and he achieved a certain degree of celebrity. Turning the situation to his advantage, he began to make plans for another Antarctic expedition, this time with himself as leader.

By 1907 plans were in place, and the Nimrod Expedition set sail. Early in 1908 they established a base at Cape Royds, on Ross Island, and settled in for the winter. As the Antarctic spring came, they prepared for the expedition’s main event: a trek to the South Pole. The trekking party consisted of Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams.

The Beardmore Glacier

They walked south across the Ross Ice Shelf and climbed to the Antarctic Plateau by way of the 160 km (100 mile) long Beardmore Glacier. (That same route would be taken by Scott’s Polar party a few years later.) They then set out across the vast Plateau. After over 2-1/2 months of trekking they had reached a point — latitude 88°23′ — about 160 km (100 mile) from the Pole when Shackleton made the difficult decision to turn back. They were dangerously low on food, and would not have survived the return journey. As it was, they had to make some of their return distance on half-rations. Shackleton later summarized the reasons for his decision in this way: “A live donkey is better than a dead lion”.

Nimrod's South Pole trekkers. L to R: Wild, Shackleton, Marshall, Adams.

Just two years after Shackleton’s near miss, both Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott successfully reached the South Pole. Shackleton, however, had not had his fill, and began casting about for another Antarctic feat to perform. He settled on a trans-Antarctic trek: he would march from one side of Antarctica to the Pole, and then continue to the other coast. The expedition’s formal title was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, but it is popularly known, after the name of its famous ship, as the Endurance Expedition.

I’ll have more to say about the Endurance Expedition in the coming week; it turned into one of the most beloved adventure stories in recent history. For now, I will just note that Shackleton never took a single step of the trans-Antarctic journey. When he returned to England in 1917, he seems to have still had Antarctica in his heart.

And so it was that in 1921 he set sail yet again, at the helm of the Quest, for an expedition with rather unclear objectives. Many of Shackleton’s men from the Endurance signed on again, and the whole enterprise had an air of nostalgia about it, as though it were an attempt to recapture the camaraderie and adventure of glory days. Once again, as with the Endurance, they docked in South Georgia before proceeding to Antarctica, but this time Shackleton went no further: in the early hours of 5 January 1922 he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 47 years old.

At the request of his wife Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, a fitting resting place for a man who had loved Antarctica, who in life had been restless and adventurous, courageous and resolute, and a well-beloved leader of men.

Shackleton's grave in South Georgia.