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57e congrès de la SAES : (Re)construction(s)

(Auto)biography and Authority: Dickens and Forster’s Reconstruction of a ‘National Treasure’

Autobiographie et autorité : Dickens, Forster, et la reconstruction du « trésor national »
Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar


Cet article s’intéresse à la façon dont Dickens et Forster ont collaboré à la reconstruction de l’enfance de Dickens à partir du « fragment autobiographique », ce court texte dans lequel Dickens narre son embauche, à l’âge de douze ans, dans une fabrique de cirage. Quand il s’agit de raconter sa propre vie, Dickens hésite constamment entre une auto-censure stricte et un besoin frénétique de s’épancher longuement. Mais sa conscience aigüe des risques que ferait peser pareil épanchement sur le « trésor national » (l’expression est de Jean Ferguson Carr) qu’il sait être devenu, explique peut-être qu’il ait confié le texte à Forster et refusé de le publier de son vivant. L’analyse porte ici sur la façon dont Forster structure sa biographie autour des silences du fragment et de sa construction en brefs tableaux, avant de s’appuyer sur la fiction de Dickens, en particulier David Copperfield, le roman qui reprend verbatim certains passages du fragment. Elle s’intéresse ensuite au contrôle exercé en sous-main par Dickens, qui s’assure avant sa mort que la biographie écrite par son ami et le récit de son enfance en particulier correspondront exactement à l’image qu’il s’en fait. La question de l’autorité est centrale, en effet, et le manque d’intérêt de Dickens vis-à-vis de la publication du fragment, si surprenant pour qui connaît un peu le grand romancier, n’est bien évidemment qu’un leurre.

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1In the late 1840s, Dickens started writing his autobiography, stopped abruptly, gave the draft to John Forster and then apparently lost all interest in it. He was particularly vague as to the future publication of the piece: ‘Highly probable that it may never see the light. No wish. Left to J. F. or others’ (Forster I: 40). It is not surprising that Dickens chose John Forster as chief beneficiary as it were. When they met in the winter of 1836–1837, Forster was already the literary editor of The Examiner and an influential literary critic with a great love of the arts in general. His friendship with Dickens ‘quickly became of central importance to Dickens both in his personal and in his writing life’ (Slater 101). The bond between them was to be a strong and lasting one.

2The autobiographical draft told the story of how Dickens, at the age of twelve, became a child labourer in a blacking factory, where he pasted labels on bottles of boot blacking, during and after John Dickens’s imprisonment for debt. This experiment is generally thought of by biographers as having scarred Dickens for life. ‘All roads, it sometimes seems, lead back to Warren’s Blacking’, argues Rosemarie Bodenheimer (Bodenheimer 17).

3When it comes to the autobiographical fragment, the first intriguing question is one of date. It is difficult to know precisely when Dickens decided to revisit the painful Blacking Warehouse episode and to write about it. According to John Forster, the fragment was written in response to a question he asked Dickens in March or April 1847. Peter Ackroyd suggests that it is inextricably linked to Fanny Dickens’s death in September 1848. There may even have been several versions of the text for Michael Slater, the final one having been handed over to Forster in January 1849 (see Slater 285), ‘though in quite what form is a puzzle’, Slater adds (Slater 15), the manuscript of the fragment having disappeared.

  • 1 ‘Dickens’, she writes, ‘readily acknowledged his responsibility as curator of a phenomenal personal (...)

4When faced with the prospect of writing his autobiography, Dickens seems to oscillate between two extremes: strict auto-censorship and frenetic confession. He sums up this hesitation in a striking, now very well-known phrase: ‘This is the first time I ever set down even these particulars, and, glancing them over, I feel like a wild beast in a caravan describing himself in his keeper’s absence’ (in a letter to Wilkie Collins, 6th June 1856). That a revelation of private trauma might undermine the ‘national treasure’ that Dickens had become at the end of the forties (the phrase is borrowed from Jean Ferguson Carr’s analysis of the autobiographical fragment1) seems a good enough reason for Dickens to have given up the idea of writing his autobiography and to have given the piece to Forster, which enabled him to remain a wild beast and put Forster in the place of keeper.

  • 2 The word is taken from Hard Times (II, i), where it is used in a business context: ‘Office-hours we (...)

5But did it? Whenever Dickens collaborates with one of his friends, the question of authority becomes central. Dickens’s ‘No wish’ seems particularly out of character in the light of the influence he most certainly wielded over his friends and more specifically his future biographer. This paper will thus address the reconstruction by Forster of Dickens’s childhood in the former’s use of the draft in the biography published from 1872, the ins and outs of the collaboration of the novelist and his biographer, and their joint attempt to make sense of a distressing, apparently meaningless, experience. I will first briefly show how Forster dealt with the fragment, its blanks, omissions and problematic chronology. Further, when it comes to the fragment, Dickens’s complex managerial2 stratagem may prove to be an integral element in the reconstruction of his childhood experience, as I hope to show. His influence over Forster may very well have been overwhelming, even from beyond the grave.

The Fragment, Its Blanks, Omissions and Problematic Chronology

6Some portions of the autobiographical fragment are found in Chapter 1, Volume I of Forster’s biography, The Life of Charles Dickens, but the longest quotes from Dickens’s memoir are found in Chapter 2, which deals with the year 1824. In recounting what happened that year, Dickens makes a distinction between the period ‘before the blacking days’ (Forster I: 63) and the period which followed, thus highlighting the centrality of the episode. In her compelling analysis of the way Dickens negotiates memory, Rosemarie Bodenheimer provides a short summary of events leading up to the blacking days (Bodenheimer 17–19), which clearly shows that Dickens started working at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse on February 9th, 1824, two days after his twelfth birthday, and that his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea a few days later, on February 20th. This raises the question of the chronology adopted by Forster. Forster describes the family being in financial straits and John Dickens’s being sent to prison in Chapter 1, referring to ‘the prelude to what remains to be described’ (Forster I: 47). Then—and only then—does he chronicle Dickens’s time at the factory in Chapter 2. The manuscript being lost, it is impossible to know who (Forster or Dickens) operates the chronological distortion. The obvious consequence of such manipulation is to establish a very tight connection between Dickens’s child-labour and the tragedy of his family’s poverty, since it makes Dickens’s misery the direct consequence of his father’s incarceration—when clearly it was not. The aim, of course, may be to partially exonerate Dickens’s parents of heartless conduct, since the inverted chronology points to the pressing need for money, even if only a few shillings a week.

7The second vexing question concerns the omissions and blanks in the original fragment. Here are two representative examples of these types of elisions. Forster writes:

There is, however, an interval of some months still to be described, of which, from conversations or letters that passed between us, after or because of this confidence, and that already have yielded fruit to these pages, I can supply some vague and desultory notices’. (Forster I: 41)

There is here another blank, which it is, however, not difficult to supply from letters and recollections of my own’. (Forster I: 60)

8Thus Forster at times explicitly calls attention to these ‘blanks’ in Dickens’s narrative and explains how he has managed to fill them, using conversations and letters as equivalent (and of course valid) biographical sources. But the elisions reveal Dickens’s difficulty in dealing with the past in a structured and systematic way. It is interesting to consider which episodes are not related in the fragment and which must thus be reconstituted with recourse to Forster’s reminiscences or to the letters he received from his friend. The omissions correspond to important events, which are perhaps even more marked than most with the shame or fear of social slippage. There is first the mention of the removal of the Dickens family into the Marshalsea, where they set up ‘home’, and then the narrative of Dickens’s breakfasts and dinners ‘at home’ (Forster I: 60) in the prison, when he was finally able to be at least partially reunited with the rest of his family. Embarrassment and shame seem to have led to elision, and Dickens seems at times to opt for strategic forgetting.

9Forster’s efforts to fill in the blanks and provide a continuing narrative are perhaps not sufficient to cover up the instability of the fragment itself. Chapter Two of the biography provides such long quotes directly taken from the fragment that the segments narrativized by Forster that do not explicitly correspond to an elision raise questions that Forster rarely bothers to answer. Was there a blank in the fragment, or did Forster decide to exercise editorial prerogative and narrativize the section concerned? It is impossible to know. This contributes to the overall impression that the fragment constantly oscillates between elision and exposure, utterance and concealment.

10That there is a fluctuation between two opposite poles is also true, up to a point, of Forster’s narrative in Chapter 2. Forster seems to hesitate between crafting his biography so that it closely resembles what Dickens’s autobiography might have been, and the temptation to fictionalize. On the one hand, Forster highlights the importance of Dickens’s letters to him, from which he quotes at great length, the aim being, whenever possible, to let Dickens tell the story of his life in his own words:

. . . to give . . . to the memoir what was attainable of the value of autobiography, letters to myself, such as were never addressed to any other of his correspondents, and covering all the important incidents in the life to be retraced, were used with few exceptions exclusively’. (Forster III: 441)

11This pronounced reliance on Dickens’s personal narrative is combined with an imperative sense of necessity and duty. The ‘surrogate autobiographer’ (Carr 448) has an important mission: he must tell the story, and tell it in Dickens’s own words: ‘on one occasion he gave me a sketch of the character of his father, which, as I can here repeat it in the exact words employed by him, will be the best preface I can make to what I feel that I have no alternative but to tell’ (Forster I: 38, my emphasis).

12On the other hand though, John Forster departs from a strict adherence to biographical neutrality or distance, and resorts to narrative strategies evocative of the writing of fiction. He notably creates and maintains suspense for example in: ‘The fulfilment [of my mission] indeed he [Dickens] had himself rendered more easy by partially uplifting the veil in David Copperfield’ (Forster I: 41–42). We find here a very early allusion to a mysterious secret hidden in Dickens’s novel, but no information as to its substance. A few pages on, Forster suggests the existence of a text written by his friend:

The readers of Mr. Micawber’s history who remember David’s first visit to the Marshalsea prison, and how upon seeing the turnkey he recalled the turnkey in the blanket in Roderick Random, will read with curious interest what follows, written as a personal experience of fact two or three years before the fiction had even entered into his thoughts. (Forster I: 44–45)

13Forster maintains suspense by avoiding specifics about the document, and, what is more, by not giving the origin of an earlier quote, probably from the fragment, which deals with Mrs Dickens’s failed attempt at opening a school of her own (see Forster I: 44). The revelation that the fragment constitutes Dickens’s attempt at autobiography, and is found almost verbatim in David Copperfield, only comes later (Forster I: 49). Then, once Forster too has ‘uplift[ed] the veil’, biography and fiction interact, especially when Forster suggests that certain blanks in his narrative may be filled in by sections of Dickens’s novel: ‘How there was something agreeable and gipsy-like in the dinner after all, and how he took back the captain’s knife and fork early in the afternoon, and how he went home to comfort his mother with an account of his visit, David Copperfield has also accurately told’ (Forster I: 46).

Dickens’s Managerial System

  • 3 There are four such scenes in the fragment.

14The autobiographical account as it appears in Chapter Two of Forster’s Life… has an almost fragmented structure in brief tableaux in which the child is repeatedly3 depicted as entering a public house or a shop, and being looked upon with both curiosity and pity by adults, the whole scene being of course the object of the adult narrator’s gaze. Two examples illustrate this:

What the waiter thought of such a strange little apparition, coming in all alone, I don’t know; but I can see him now, staring at me as I ate my dinner, and bringing another waiter to look. (Forster I: 55)

Here we stand, all three, before me now, in my study in Devonshire Terrace. The landlord, in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife, looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. (Forster I: 64)

15These scenes are intensely charged with pathos balanced by humour, a well-known Dickensian strategy (and one found of course in David Copperfield, where the fragment is turned into fiction). Clearly, Dickens knows when to take the time to dramatize in order to generate empathy. In an article entitled ‘Character and Self in Autobiography’, David J. Gordon explains that dramatization is a frequent autobiographical strategy:

A second autobiographical strategy is to overtly dramatize an individual history through the use of scene, situation, and developing narrative. . . . Given the inherent problem of self-consciousness, the autobiographer tries to escape the morass of incessant self-reference by dramatizing himself, by a sort of will-to-fiction that may have little to do with conscious lying. (Gordon 106–09)

16In Dickens’s autobiographical text, however, dramatization, which brings observation and specularity to the fore, is much more than a simple narrative strategy. It gives the adult Dickens the opportunity to insist on his power of observation, which he sees as a key personal quality, vital in the novelist. Dickens suggests that he developed such power precisely when he was a young twelve-year-old left to his own devices, roaming the streets of London (‘I mention the circumstance because it illustrates, to me, my early interest in observing people’, in Forster I: 65), which leads Nicola Bradbury to describe the blacking warehouse episode as constituting ‘Dickens’s initiation into the art of observation, and then of writing’ (Bradbury 24). This resort to a device also used in fiction (remember that Gordon calls it ‘a sort of will-to-fiction’) enables Dickens to display both the child’s sense of observation and the famous novelist’s later use of such power in his writing. It therefore serves to assert a connection, even continuity, between Dickens’s two selves. Forster writes:

It seems almost too much to assert of a child, say at nine or ten years old, that his observation of everything was as close and good, or that he had as much intuitive understanding of the character and weaknesses of the grown-up people around him, as when the same keen and wonderful faculty had made him famous among men. But my experience of him led me to put implicit faith in the assertion he unvaryingly himself made, that he had never seen any cause to correct or change what in his boyhood was his own secret impression of anybody whom he had had, as a grown man, the opportunity of testing in later years. (Forster I: 38)

17When the adult Dickens both observes and distances himself from the scene in which his younger self enters a public house, the novelist is showing that what he learned as a child is indispensable to his writing. Childhood, as Dickens remembers it in the fragment, is therefore constitutive of adulthood. The child Dickens, badly-treated though he is, experiences what will make him a writer. Dickens’s painful experience is thus integrated into Dickens’s life (by which I mean that it is seen as a decisive stage in the road to adulthood, and is therefore made sense of) because it is the basis of the transformation of the child into the great novelist: ‘Demonstrably, what the autobiographical fragment charts is the making of the writer’ (Bradbury 31). The past is here established as the origin of creativity. Both Forster and Dickens dramatize and magnify childhood suffering in order to insist on Dickens’s development of the recognised sense of acute observation, on his ability to rise above circumstance and become the ‘Inimitable’.

18The integration of experience is nonetheless problematic on two accounts. If the fragment celebrates the making of a writer, then it is perhaps a paradox that it is conceived as an incomplete piece representative of the author’s inability to find the right words to express what he feels about the episode. Dickens’s anxiety at not finding the right words is evoked several times. (‘The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless . . . cannot be written’, in Forster I: 54; ‘How much I suffered, it is, as I have said already, utterly beyond my power to tell’, in Forster I: 58; ‘It does not seem a tithe of what I might have written, or of what I meant to write’, in Forster I: 70). We see here how the novelist himself questions his own mastery of language.

19Further, the integration of experience fails to produce a coherent whole that might be called Dickens’s life. There seems to be no continuity between child and man other than the causality established when Dickens says, ‘all these things have worked together to make me what I am’ (in Forster I: 69). The performative statement is not based on a convincing argument for development. In particular, Dickens makes no allusion to any transitional stages establishing psychological continuity between the child of 1824 and the adult of the late 1840s. Dickens’s adult retrospective outlook is dissociated from his younger self’s in rather dramatic fashion precisely when the child becomes the object of the adult’s gaze. When Dickens notes ‘Here we stand, all three, before me now, in my study in Devonshire Terrace’, he establishes great distance between his two selves and seriously undermines any sense we might have of psychological continuity. As early as 1978, Robert Patten identified the absence of convincing telos, of purpose or aim, in the description of events:

The autobiographical fragment is incomplete, truncated; it bears no connection to the future life of the child or the present life of the adult; it projects no telos out of suffering that converts misery into accomplishment, trauma into understanding. The survivor cannot say, will not admit, why he has survived’. (Patten 277–78)

20An idea taken up later by both biographers like Peter Ackroyd and critics like Rosemary Bodenheimer:

His narrative is both revealing and unrevealing, for example, turning Dickens into a passive sufferer without giving any clue as to the necessarily tough or self-willed nature of the child who struggled through such early setbacks to become a rich and famous man. (Ackroyd 581)

The boy and the man coexist; how the boy becomes the man is elided. (Bodenheimer 56)

21In spite of Dickens’s desire to make sense of the experience and to posit the child he was as fathering the man, the fragment fails to display purposeful teleological function. On the contrary, when Dickens represents himself at his desk writing, with the child in front of him, he freezes the scene, condemns himself to the eternal return of memory, and underlines the impossibility for him of closure. Dramatization and distance are both constructive and destructive, since when watching himself from a very great distance, Dickens reiterates how he relies on the power of observation acquired when he was very young, but also insists on the tenacious, perhaps emotionally crippling, persistence of memories.

22At the core of these memories—and at the core of the fragment, is the little twelve-year-old boy, whom Michael Slater calls ‘an intensely pathetic figure’ (Slater 285). In an article vindicating autobiography as a literary form of expression, Stephen Shapiro argues: ‘The brief self-image, as distinct from the entire autobiographical whole, is another relatively unstudied aspect of the art of auto-biography. Such self-images are attempts to compress the writer’s view of himself into “essence”; . . . this essence [frequently] becomes an image’ (Shapiro 442).

23Dickens’s essence or self-image undoubtedly corresponds to Slater’s ‘intensely pathetic figure’. In Dickens’s writings there is of course a decided indulgence in pathos, but the insistence on the vulnerability of the little boy again freezes the image of his former self and prevents any truly teleological approach to the fragment. The repetitions found in Dickens’s narrative attest to the permanence of the image:

‘Certainly the hardest creditor would not have been disposed (even if he had been legally entitled) to avail himself of my poor white hat, little jacket, or corduroy trowsers’. (Forster I: 63, my emphasis)

‘I was such a little fellow, with my poor white hat, little jacket, and corduroy trowsers, that frequently, when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter to wash down the saveloy and the loaf I had eaten in the street, they didn’t like to give it me’. (Forster I: 64, my emphasis)

24That this image is—deliberately or not—retained by Dickens as the essence of his being is confirmed by Rosemary Bodenheimer:

Forster reports a fragment of a letter dated sometime in 1862: ‘I must entreat you, to pause for an instant, and go back to what you know of my childish days, and to ask yourself whether it is natural that something of the character formed in me then, and lost under happier circumstances, should have reappeared in the last five years. The never-to-be-forgotten misery of that old time bred a certain shrinking sensitiveness in a certain ill-clad, ill-fed child, that I have found come back in the never-to-be-forgotten misery of this later time’ (10.97–98). The five years in question were the ones in which Dickens had left Catherine and entered into a ‘vagabondish’ double life. (Bodenheimer 84)

25Bodenheimer shows how after Dickens and Forster’s friendship had broken down, Dickens resorted to the image of the ‘little fellow’ in order to pull at Forster’s heart-strings and make sure his friend would still agree to write his biography. The mention of what corresponds to his essence may have been a ruse, but it testifies to the deep scars left by Dickens’s personal tragedy. The frozen self-image again points to Dickens’s inability to be convincing as regards the development of the ‘little fellow’ into the prominent novelist, his inability to integrate the blacking warehouse episode into a teleological life-story, and thus to make sense of experience.

Forster’s Authority (or Lack Thereof)

26What was Forster’s role as a biographer in the context of Dickens’s failure to credibly integrate experience? Forster’s gratitude at having been invested with an important mission (writing Dickens’s biography) is apparent early in Volume 1, Chapter 1. In 1848, near the time of the writing of the fragment, Dickens sent a letter to Forster which the latter quotes from with pride: ‘I desire no better for my fame, when my personal dustiness shall be past the control of my love of order, than such a biographer and such a critic’ (in Forster I: 40). A few pages later, Forster adds: ‘ . . . though . . . I had ceased to believe it likely that I should survive to write about him, he had never withdrawn the wish at this early time strongly expressed, or the confidences, not only then but to the very eve of his death reposed in me, that were to enable me to fulfill it’ (Forster I: 41).

27In her article entitled ‘Dickens and Autobiography: A Wild Beast and His Keeper’, Jean Ferguson Carr details the several ways in which Charles Dickens literally fed Forster with biographical information, mainly through the numerous letters he wrote to him, some of which include direct allusions to the biography to come:

Although Forster wrote the biography by himself after Dickens’s death in 1870, over three-fourths of the text derives from letters Dickens wrote to Forster starting when they met in 1837, and so is, in some way, the ‘life in MS’ Dickens promised. Dickens wrote vivid and exciting letters to most of his friends and family, but his letters to Forster belong—in length, number, and completeness—to another class. Forster describes the letters as ‘written with unexampled care and truthfulness, and set forth in definite pictures of what he saw and stood in the midst of, unblurred by vagueness or reserve’ (F, 2: 377). Dickens wrote to Forster almost daily when he was abroad and wrote to him about every important event in his life from his personal to his business affairs, from plans for novels and projects to political feelings, from fears about death or failure to quarrels with his friends. (Carr 462)

28Both Forster’s pride in the task allotted to him and the sheer amount of information the biographer had at his disposal, enabled Dickens to exercise control over the project. His control also extended to the contentious matter of the integration of the painful episode in a teleological reading of his life-story. As far as style is concerned, I have pointed out how paradoxical it seems that the making of a writer should be celebrated in a very fragmentary text insisting on its author’s inability to express his pain as he would wish to. Robert Patten shows though that the style of the fragment bears testimony to Dickens’s mastery (in spite of its fragmentation), and that further, Dickens’s skill with words also comes from the time of the blacking warehouse:

There was another kind of skill he appropriated to himself from his father, that facility with words as instruments for creating a different, better reality than the blacking warehouse or the Marshalsea. (Patten 275)

Charles, boy and man, can keep the rewards of that dearly bought knowledge: a kind of masculine independence involving self-sufficiency, skill in work, sympathy with the oppressed and abandoned, and creation through imagination and language. (Patten 277)

29The contradiction between the fragmentation of the autobiographical text and Dickens’s mastery with words is only apparent. What the fragment celebrates is the making of a writer of fiction, not of a biographer or an autobiographer. Carr underlines that Dickens did not like writing biographical texts: ‘His own attempt at a biography, Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, was one of the few outright failures of his writing career, and he disliked the memorials he was asked to write for friends and colleagues’ (Carr 449).

  • 4 In other sections of the fragment Forster again displays a tendency to repeat what Dickens writes. (...)

30The difficulty of adopting a teleological reading of the fragment derives, as we know, from ‘the unsatisfying and ultimately meaningless end of the story’ (Bodenheimer 73). The abrupt, almost fairytale-like ending, followed by absolute silence on the episode, a Dickens family secret, meant that it was very difficult for Dickens to make sense of the episode and integrate experience. Forster helped however by simply repeating, at times almost parroting, what Dickens had written: ‘He was at another school already, not knowing it. The self-education forced upon him was teaching him, all unconsciously as yet, what, for the future that awaited him, it most behooved him to know’ (Forster I: 37).4 Just before describing the Blacking Warehouse episode, Forster adopts a retrospective vision, the vision of a historian who knows what the future has in store (‘He was at another school already, not knowing it’). ‘Behoove’ explicitly states that it was beneficial for Dickens to be victim to such misery. This corresponds exactly to what Dickens himself wrote in the fragment: ‘I do not write resentfully or angrily; for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am’ (in Forster I: 69). Here, Forster duplicates the performative statement that the experience of the Blacking Warehouse episode served a purpose. In other words, Dickens speaks through Forster. Repetition, like the mantra it so often is in Dickens’s fiction, is used in place of a convincing display of integration. Additionally, the fragment is included in a biography the basis of which is the development of the unhappy child into the ‘Inimitable’. The teleological reading of experience is thus again duplicated at the level of the whole biography.

31Repetition, however, is not Forster’s only contribution to the adoption of a teleological approach to the fragment. When Dickens explains: ‘Here we stand, all three, before me now, in my study in Devonshire Terrace’, he depicts himself as the famous novelist, sitting at his desk, writing. In other words, as we know, he sees his younger self from a safe novelistic distance. The word ‘novelistic’ is a key term here, as we will see now. Forster’s other contribution is indeed based on his making sure that the reality of Dickens’s childhood is interlaced with fiction (how better to insist on the making of a great novelist?). He writes for example: ‘A house was soon found at number four, Gower Street north; a large brass plate on the door announced Mrs. Dickens’s Establishment; and the result I can give in the exact words of the then small actor in the comedy, whose hopes it had raised so high’ (Forster I: 44). The ‘small actor in the comedy’ is somewhat an oddity. While it establishes distance (and thus duplicates Dickens’s strategy of separation through distance), it turns reality into fiction and brings fictionality to the fore. Fictionality is important in that it suggests a mode of reading autobiographical texts which David J. Gordon addresses:

The dual role of the writer of autobiography leads Abbott to suggest that the instability of the form is a product of two different modes of reading, one aligning the narrator with the transparent, omniscient narrator of a novel and the other aligning him with the author whom we cannot help seeing. . . . If our interpretive choice is to read the autobiographical work fictionally, we will call attention to its completeness of design, its meaning, as we would in commenting on a successful novel. If instead we read it in the autobiographical mode, we will foreground the progressive act of writing. . . . In the first case we look with, or through, the author, at what he shows, tells, or even comments on aside. . . . In the second case we stand back and consider the writing itself as narrative action, asking of the text not ‘how is this complete’ but ‘how does this express the author’. (Gordon 110, my emphasis)

32The reading of the fragment suggested by Forster clearly corresponds to the first choice listed by Gordon, ‘read[ing] the autobiographical work fictionally’. Forster repeatedly insists on the inclusion of the fragment in David Copperfield, which prevents any elision of the kinship of the fragment with fiction. Regarding this inclusion, he thus explains:

Those warehouse experiences fell then so aptly into the subject he had chosen, that he could not resist the temptation of immediately using them; and the manuscript recording them, which was but the first portion of what he had designed to write, was embodied in the substance of the eleventh and earlier chapters of his novel. What already had been sent to me, however, and proof-sheets of the novel interlined at the time, enable me now to separate the fact from the fiction, and to supply to the story of the author’s childhood those passages, omitted from the book, which, apart from their illustration of the growth of his character, present to us a picture of tragical suffering, and of tender as well as humorous fancy unsurpassed in even the wonders of his published writings. (Forster I: 50)

33Although Forster makes it clear that he ‘separate[d] the fact from the fiction’, the end of his sentence describes sections of the fragment in terms typically used to define Dickens’s fiction: the phrase ‘tragical suffering’ corresponds closely to most of the stories told in Dickens’s novels, ‘tender [and] humorous fancy’ to Dickens’s distinctive mode of writing. That the fragment is considered by Forster as even better Dickens than the novels, does not really affect the very close connexion between autobiographical reality and fiction.

34Forster’s accrued insistence on fictional references contributes to blurring the separation between the reality of Dickens’s childhood and his fiction. In that, again, he follows Dickens’s example. Dickens refers to David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, Forster to The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son, which means that most of the novels published before 1848 are mentioned (the exceptions being Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge). Such interweaving of reality and fiction suggests that the fragment should be read ‘fictionally’, which ‘call[s] attention to its completeness of design’ (to use Gordon’s terms of analysis). By introducing a fictional colouring to the fragment, Forster thus weaves a consistent narrative web, an intelligible form, and contributes to the impression that the experience is part of a coherent whole, in the style of a novel. Dickens negotiates the tension between his desire of integration and the separation of narrated self through distance, by performatively saying that ‘I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am’. It is important to note that once again, Forster simply follows his friend’s example, and develops and illustrates Dickens’s statement. The blacking warehouse episode is integrated since it is repeatedly shown by Forster as having led to the making of the great novelist.

35Dickens’s obsession with memory bears witness to his difficulty in reaching a sense of telos, meaning, unity and wholeness with relation to the painful childhood episode. Rosemary Mundhenk suggests that:

In his later fiction in particular, Dickens emphasizes the difficulty of dealing constructively with the remembered past: in characters like Mr. Wickfield, Miss Havisham, Mr. Boythorn, Louisa Gradgrind, Lady Dedlock, Bradley Headstone, Mrs. Clennam, and Flora Finching, Dickens catalogs the debilitating effects of memory, its unhealthy suppression or indulgence and its capacity to arrest development and pervert natural feeling. Most particularly, in David Copperfield, Dickens focuses directly, through the central plot and protagonist, on the complexities and paradoxes of the act of remembering. (Mundhenk 324)

36As regards the autobiographical fragment, however, Dickens relied on Forster’s faithful friendship to make sure that his confession would be texted as he wished to perceive it: a decisive, meaningful, stage in the (re)construction of a coherent life-story. In the wake of Dickens’s performative statement, Forster’s insistence on the presence of actual telos cultivates a sense of closure, though it is superficial and fragile. Dickens’s authority and control appear once again to have been irresistible, even from beyond the grave. Forster thus seems to have played the part of the wild beast whose disclosures had to be disciplined by Dickens, ever a keeper.

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Ackroyd, Peter. Charles Dickens. 1990. London: Vintage, 1999.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. Knowing Dickens. Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 2007.

Bradbury, Nicola. ‘Dickens’s Use of the Autobiographical Fragment’. A Companion to Charles Dickens. Ed. David Paroissien. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 18–32.

Carr, Jean Ferguson. ‘Dickens and Autobiography: A Wild Beast and His Keeper’. ELH. 52.2 (1985): 447–69.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens I. Philadelphia: Lippincott and Co. 1872.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens III. New York: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Gordon, David J. ‘Character and Self in Autobiography’. The Journal of Narrative Technique 18.2 (1988): 105–19.

Mundhenk, Rosemary. ‘David Copperfield and “The Oppression of Remembrance”’. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 29.3 (1987): 323–41. Access: 30-01-2017.

Patten, Robert. ‘Autobiography into Autobiography: The Evolution of David Copperfield’. Approaches to Victorian Autobiography. Ed. George P. Landow. Athens: Ohio UP, 1979. 269–88.

Shapiro, Stephen. ‘The Dark Continent of Literature: Autobiography’. Comparative Literature Studies 5.4 (1968): 421–54. Access: 12-12-2016.

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2009.

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1 ‘Dickens’, she writes, ‘readily acknowledged his responsibility as curator of a phenomenal personality or national treasure’ (Carr 448).

2 The word is taken from Hard Times (II, i), where it is used in a business context: ‘Office-hours were over: and at that period of the day, in warm weather, [Mrs Sparsit] usually embellished with her genteel presence, a managerial board-room over the public office’. When it comes to the autobiographical fragment, Dickens has an authoritative, business-like approach.

3 There are four such scenes in the fragment.

4 In other sections of the fragment Forster again displays a tendency to repeat what Dickens writes. For example: ‘How it came that, being what he was, he should now have fallen into the misery and neglect of the time about to be described, was a subject on which thoughts were frequently interchanged between us’ (Forster I: 38), corresponds to what Dickens wrote, in almost the same words ‘It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age’ (in Forster I: 52).

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Référence électronique

Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar, « (Auto)biography and Authority: Dickens and Forster’s Reconstruction of a ‘National Treasure’ », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 88 Automne | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 15 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.4397

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Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar

Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar is Senior Lecturer in British Literature at UCA in Clermont-Ferrand. She wrote her PhD on the Gothic novel in Britain (1764–1824) and has published several articles on the persistence of the Gothic in the Victorian novel. Her research now focuses on Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. She has recently co-edited The Grotesque in the Fiction of Charles Dickens and Other 19th-century European Novelists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).
Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar
est agrégée d’anglais et Maître de Conférences en littérature britannique à l’Université Clermont-Auvergne. Elle est l’auteur d’une thèse de doctorat sur le roman gothique anglais et a publié de nombreux articles sur le roman gothique ainsi que sur le roman victorien, en particulier sur Charles Dickens et Charlotte Brontë. Elle a récemment co-dirigé la publication de The Grotesque in the Fiction of Charles Dickens and Other 19th-century European Novelists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014). Elle est membre de la SFEVE.

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