The Celebrity Artist

dickens-1861.jpgMost people reading celebrity news don’t regard it as real news. Stories about famous people falling off the wagon or feuding with exes or generally behaving badly are only interesting because the principles are well known.

Were they our sisters, brothers, parents, or friends, we might rush to help, but their stature can make us forget they are real human beings…when, really, everybody is.

I heard someone say celebrities are like Greek Gods, fallible and still divine. I’ve always felt sorry for the Greek gods. Celebrity isn’t pretty.

Take Charles Dickens. He was one of the first literary figures to deal with public interest in his life, and his life was troubled and sordid, far different from the sentimentality of his work. For instance:

  • Micawber, the David Copperfield character in debtor’s prison, arises from Dickens’ father John. Dickens lived in debtor’s prison for a time and worked throughout his life to extricate his profligate father from financial troubles.
  • Dickens’ first love, Maria Beadnell, couldn’t marry him because her family doubted his prospects, even though by the standards of any time, his fame was meteoric. After his first tour of the United States, he returned with coats worn threadbare at the elbows from admirers’ fawning.
  • His wife, Catherine Hogarth, bore him ten children, yet he later claimed he was never satisfied by their life together. He tried to reconnect with Beadnell but discovered she’d grown fat and old, and he took up with the much younger actress Ellen Ternan, separating from Catherine after she accidentally received an expensive bracelet he’d meant for Ellen.
  • In 1858, he published a non-denial-denial full of lacunae of his affair in a magazine he edited, Household Words, and effectively helped to kill the publication. He discovered, as many celebrities confirmed after him, the paradoxical effect of denials.
  • After his heyday, he became more famous for performing than writing, pulling in more income for his relentless and laborious reading circuit than for writing his new works, which many critics regarded as evidence of diminishing talent.
  • Late in Dickens’ life, Ellen, Ellen’s mother, and Dickens survived the Staplehurst rail crash that killed nearly everyone in the car forward of Dickens, and he ministered to many passengers as they died. He was never comfortable traveling again, and that moment started the physical decline that killed him at age 58.

We might know more about Dickens’ life, but his disillusionment with the public life led him to burn all of his personal correspondence in a bonfire at his home at Gad’s Hill in 1860. He continued the practice for the rest of his life, and though obviously we have little record of why, you can guess—he must have grown tired of people wanting more than his books. He must have been tired of living up to his novels’ warm and conciliatory conclusions.

His life was not all treacly domestic bliss.

I’m curious about his final hours, how he might have regarded the renown he’d earned. And I’m interested in his fans, their expectations and reactions. Did they forgive his peccadilloes for the sake of his art?

I doubt it. Often we demand a clarity and simplicity in public life that seldom exists in private. We approach the celebrated, even the celebrated artist, with an odd mixture of obsessive fascination and callous curiosity.

Dickens has been dead 140 years, and the prurient interest in the life has largely died away, replaced by the deification of the novelist. His rehabilitation isn’t unexpected, but I can’t help wondering, perversely, why we have such difficulty living with a Dickens—or any other public figure—between deity and devil.

Though I’m not an avid Dickens fan, it’s the later Dickens I enjoy most, the one who took to revising his work, who abandoned the literary factory system of his youth in favor of deliberative and moving prose. The Dickens of Oliver Twist and even David Copperfield tries to convince himself of something. The Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities struggles to believe nobility can persist in a deeply flawed world. Both are sentimental, but one evokes a backlash of cynicism in me and the other inspires a truer, more measured hope.

Could we have the later novels without the life?

We are too ready to judge the living and dead, too ready to apply standards that might be impossible in our life—or in any other.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art, Charles Dickens, Essays, Fame, life, Reading, Thoughts, Writing

One response to “The Celebrity Artist

  1. Pingback: On Being Dickensian | Signals to Attend

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