The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens, Edited by Jenny Hartley

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The Independent Culture

Travelling in Italy in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote to Georgina Hogarth – sister of his soon-to-be estranged wife Catherine, and herself the writer's stalwart housekeeper and executor – about his efforts to order a local bubbly. Dickens, who called himself "The Inimitable", tries to find the right word in Italian for "un vino come champagne". The waiter helps him out: "spumante". "Inimitable: 'Ecco la parola. L'ho trovato!'" He had indeed found the right word. The "Sparkler of Albion" almost never ceased to fizz. Edited with unobtrusive intelligence and insight by Jenny Hartley, this bicentenary selection of his letters both celebrates his unstoppered effervescence – and lets the reader count its cost, both for the Sparkler and his loved ones.

Between 1965 and 2002, the tremendous "Pilgrim Edition" of Dickens's letters grew into a 12-volume monument to gold-standard scholarship. Some 14,000 of his letters survive; 20 new items come to light each year. The literary juggernaut could not "bear to leave anything unanswered". He wrote, as Hartley explains, when the Penny Post act of 1840, together with the coming of the railways, uncorked a flood of rapid communication. Major cities enjoyed 10 or 12 deliveries every day and Londoners "expected to receive a letter two or three hours after posting".

His own torrential fecundity as a correspondent – whether passing on recipes for rum punch and dog food, sharing the embryonic stages of a novel, handing out stern editorial advice to his journals' contributors, or reporting in casually dazzling prose on forays, feasts and funerals – matched the spirit of the age. But it presents an editor with a towering summit to scale. Hartley does so with awesome dexterity. She selects and juxtaposes letters from the Pilgrim Edition (450 of them) so that they compose, as far as possible, the autobiography that Dickens never wrote.

"The epistolary", she notes, is for him "the genre of exuberance". He rarely goes in for sustained introspection. Always "in motion", the consummate performer dons masks, changes roles, switches voices. Yet he glimpses, and dreads, the abyss that might open if the sparkling stopped. "Restlessness, you will say," he writes to his best friend and biographer, John Forster: "Whatever it is, it is always driving me, and I cannot help it." Aghast, he contemplates the morose retirement of an old chum, the actor William Macready: "I must, please God, die in harness".

He did. But how does an editor transform the epistles of a writer who dramatised both self and society as a top-speed, high-resolution spectacle into a mirror for the soul? Hartley places letters side by side, or runs them into sequences, so that through contiguity each adds light and shade to its neighbour. This dialogue brings a stereoscopic depth of field that offsets the breathless momentum.

Take the great crisis of 1858, when Dickens separated from Catherine, confirmed a commitment to his mistress Ellen Ternan, and embarked on the marathon of public readings that sealed his status as the ultimate Victorian celebrity – but certainly helped kill him. The year's selection begins with Dickens at his big-hearted best, praising the "extraordinary merit" of George Eliot – and letting her know that he has seen through the male pseudonym. With publisher Frederick Evans, he makes excited, rather greedy plans for the reading tour ("a very large sum of money would be cleared"). Later, to his close friend the super-wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts, he pens a deluded – or else wantonly cruel – self-defence in which he scolds Catherine as a bad mother.

Then the infamous "Violated Letter" – which, disastrously for his reputation, found its way into the papers – falsely claims the unhappy couple had always been "wonderfully unsuited to each other". For many years, they were not. To Catherine herself, he vainly hopes that "all unkindness is over before you and me", before the ego-boosting triumph of the readings brings a rapt dispatch to Wilkie Collins. A policeman snooping round the Ternan sisters' lodgings leads him to call on his new detective friends at Scotland Yard, while the death of journalist Douglas Jerrold prompts a virtusoso narrative to the bereaved son. So a single Dickens year sparkles by.

Hartley's picks often take us straight into the novelist's workshop, whether via the sight of an abused schoolboy's grave in Yorkshire ("I think his ghost put Smike into my head, upon the spot") or his rage against "the dire neglect of body and soul" among slum kids, a few weeks before he wrote A Christmas Carol. Fans of the Robert Ludlum formula will be pleased to learn that one discarded title for his most autobiographical novel was "The Copperfield Disclosures". As for Great Expectations ("I think a good name?" he half-asks Forster), he soon has the "pivot" of the plot in mind and masterplans the "grotesque tragi-comic conception" behind it. The warmest, brashest, most heartfelt of authors proved the most calculating craftsman at his desk.

Prodigiously versatile, Dickens the letter-writer offers lines to cherish for almost every kind of friend and fan. He's even polite to a Temperance busybody, this genial quaffer whose idea of an invalid diet began with a rum breakfast and progressed to an afternoon pint of champagne. When he reports on a raucous public hanging in London, captures social unrest on the streets of Genoa or sketches the manners of a Highland inn, Dickens the letter-writer also shows his mettle as one of the finest of all English journalists. And every successor in that trade will relish the sniffy resignation letter sent to the owner of the Morning Chronicle, after a stint of exhausting election coverage. The up-and-coming creator of Mr Pickwick flounces off in a huff and bewails his scorned "sacrifice of health, rest and personal comfort... in my zeal for the interests of the paper".

In correspondence, as in fiction, Dickens sees so much, so fast, so well, that he – and we – hardly ever sense any limits to his vision. That makes the odd spasm of stumbling self-reflection all the more memorable. At a louche saloon in Paris, he spots a sad, sophisticated lady of the night "in an Indian shawl" – not one of the pert and cheeky London street-girls he knew so well and tried to "rescue" via the Home he and Miss Burdett Coutts had set up at Shepherds Bush, but a "handsome, regardless, brooding" mature woman. "I have a fancy that I should like to know more about her. Never shall, I suppose." And never did.

It is as if Mr Dickens has caught sight of Madame Bovary, and measured for a second the distance between his imaginative world and hers. This superb edition, which so winningly displays Dickens acting himself at full volume and in high definition, also gives us moments when the mask slips, the fizz fades, and the show can't go on.