BOOK REVIEW / Best of times in capital letters: Anthony Quinn assesses the frantic life and letters of Charles Dickens. 'The Letters of Charles Dickens; Vol VII: 1853-1855' - Ed. Angus Easson, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson: Oxford, 85 pounds

HIS popular sobriquet was the Inimitable, yet who in their right minds would have chosen to imitate Charles Dickens? He seems to have lived his life at one speed - frantic - and at one pitch - maniacal. Such is the cumulative impression from this, the seventh volume of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens' letters, and if there is nothing new to say about his prodigious energy and output, there will always be occasion to marvel at them.

This tubby volume, covering the years between 1853 and 1855, finds Dickens in mid-career, busier than ever and showing no inclination to slow down. The first half of 1853 is dominated by work on Bleak House as he races against his mid-monthly deadline 'in a frenzied state of interest'. By the end of 1855 the first part of Little Dorrit has been published. In between, he has written Hard Times, edited his weekly magazine Household Words, organised holidays, lectures and public readings, staged amateur theatricals, concerned himself with worthy causes - and fired off more letters (1,271 and counting) than most of us manage in a lifetime. Some of the letters are test-runs for the novels and travel books, others are no more than hastily scribbled notes, the mid-Victorian equivalent of an answerphone message.

More remarkable still is that nearly all of them are interesting; faced with roughly 800 pages of correspondence the immediate impulse is to skim, yet one risks overlooking some sardonic glint or glancing bon mot, scintillas of pure Dickensian comedy.

In an uncharacteristically pompous letter, for example, he apprises his next-door neighbour of an incident concerning 'your baker's man'. Dickens had caught the unfortunate creature relieving himself outside his front gate, and on speaking to him the man had proved 'very impertinent'. He threatens the miscreant with the Police Act if he catches him again, but, perhaps realising the faint absurdity of his complaint, he adds: 'He was rather urgent to know what I should do 'if I was him', - which involved a flight into imagination into which I didn't follow him.'

Holidaying in Boulogne in September 1854, Dickens watches a theatre burning down - fires were a favourite spectacle of his - and records that 'the whole interior, burning like a red hot cavern, was really very fine, even in the daylight'. Then the comic novelist takes over as he describes the townsfolk's efforts to extinguish the blaze: 'On an average I should say it took about 10 minutes to throw half a gallon of water at the great roaring heap; and every time it was insulted in this way, it gave a ferocious burst, and everybody ran off.'

Thanks to the herculean endeavours of the Pilgrim editors, Dickens' letters also offer a window on a world. The footnotes rove unflaggingly over all aspects of Victorian society, from salon to slum, from weighty issues of state to the fads and folderols of the beau monde. Table-turning and spiritrapping, we learn, are all the rage in London during 1853, and Dickens, typically entranced by the idea of revenants, writes to John Leech: 'The Pembroke table in my room gambolled like an insane elephant all round the room]]]'

Driven by his reforming zeal he champions the cause of better housing and proper sanitation among the poor, and is much exercised by the supervision of the home for fallen women which he had set up with the heiress Miss Burdett-Coutts. With the Crimean War raging in the background, Dickens rails against the government's ineptitude and worries away at the supine nature of the English people who, in his view, 'are, habitually, consenting parties to the miserable imbecilities into which we have fallen'. Not content with moaning, however, he arranges the dispatch - at Miss Coutts' expense - of a clothes-drying contraption to a Scutari field hospital run by Florence Nightingale. Dickens' philanthropy is here more clear-eyed and pragmatic than one might expect: the letters extract the sweet tooth for sentimentality which tends to dog the fiction.

Dickens always had to be at the centre of things. The letters reveal an almost pathological urge to organise, both in public and in private, at work and at play. Whether conferring with W H Wills on the week-by-week editing of Household Words, or arranging a cruise down to Gravesend for supper with a friend, or inviting another of them to accompany him on his daily 15- or 16-mile walk. If he was an exhilarating companion, it would not be difficult to imagine him an exhausting one, too. On holiday in Switzerland and Italy with Wilkie Collins and the painter Augustus Egg one feels a pang of sympathy for Egg in particular, ragged continually for his incompetence in Italian. Dickens, of course, spoke the language (and several others) fluently. At a distance one finds his enthusiasm and wit pretty irresistible - prolonged periods in his company, one suspects, might eventually become intolerable.

One needs only to test the atmosphere chez Dickens to feel the truth of this. Considering how high a value he placed on the family unit - it was his exemplar for society - his own kin were a perpetual source of irritation and disappointment to him. As he anxiously informs Miss Coutts, his eldest son Charley is continually wavering over what career to pursue: he is afflicted with a general 'lassitude', inherited, as Dickens notes mournfully, from his mother (the father, of course, couldn't possibly be to blame). In May 1853 he writes to Wills lamenting the recent discovery that his son Frank, 'the cleverest of all the children', has a stammer. This news has apparently been 'kept from' him, though given Frank was eight years old by this time, it points interestingly to what he had previously considered his priorities.

Most significant of all is his increasing disaffection with his wife Catherine, who seems to have been at a loss to cope with her husband's restlessness. He declines one invitation, bristling with annoyance because 'Mrs Dickens is in the meantime picking up all manner of conditional engagements, and firing me off like a sort of revolver'. Catherine's had always been a subordinate role, but now in the face of her feebleness, her 'lassitude', he looked elsewhere for romantic fulfilment.

At one point, indeed, he thought he may have found it. In February 1855 he received a letter from Maria Beadnell, the sweetheart of his youth, now a married woman with children. Bizarrely, all his old passions were rekindled, and he wrote to 'Mrs Winter' in a spirit of moon-calf nostalgia. For Dickens, the intervening 20 years supposedly 'vanished like a dream', and soon he is addressing 'my dear Maria' with all the yearning sentimentality of a love-sick swain - 'nobody can ever know with what a sad heart I resigned you, or after what struggles and what a conflict'. Evidently the feeling was reciprocated and a meeting was arranged. The love of his young years was now plump, reckless and fond of a tipple; within weeks he was making excuses and backpedalling furiously. His perhaps unconscious revenge came six months later when he introduced Flora Finching into Little Dorrit, not an exact portrait of Maria but certainly close kin.

The next volume of the letters promises a great deal of drama: Dickens would separate from Catherine and begin his celebrated affair with Ellen Ternan, the young actress. The three years in the present volume are the calm before the storm, yet there is more than enough to delight in these bustling, vivid, funny pages.

(Photograph omitted)