Today is Charles Dickens's birthday. He was born on 7 February 1812. I'm posting this article to celebrate the incredibly talented story-teller on a very special date and to let you know the man behind the books a little more.
Would you believe such a successful, rich and widely appreciated man suffered from unhappiness? That he pined for romantic, passionate love all his life long? Apparently he did. He tried to escape his dissatisfaction and unhappiness travelling and, especially, writing.
This piece by Claudio Taccucci, was originally published on Tiscali online paper in Italian. I asked Mr Taccucci permission to translate his article and post it here at FLY HIGH! to share it with all of you who, like me, are interested in the great English novelist. He gladly and generously accepted, so here it is for you to enjoy.
Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt . Those who go to sea may change their horizon, not their soul. Charles Dickens had a tormented soul and when he was haunted by his own predicaments or unhappiness, he escaped. If he was in his London house, he went out at night and roamed the city for hours, going back only in the morning. Nobody will ever know what he actually did in those hours, which he justified as a quest for inspiration for his novels. When, to avoid melancholy, his walks were not enough, he left on trips. He travelled all over England with a friend, stayed for long periods in Paris or sailed for the States on self – promotion tours.
In 1844-45 he came to Italy. He was 32 and was already rich and famous, He had got married at 24 with 20-year-old Catherine Hogarth, who had given him a child a year (she would give birth to 10!). Dicken was dissatisfied with her, he considered her unable to manage their house, he didn’t want to have too many children but probably she did.
As soon as they got married, Catherine’s younger sister, Mary, had come to stay with them in their house and Dickens loved her deeply. She died in his arms, hit by a sudden heart desease. He was harshly stricken by that loss and fell into a state of depression in which he didn’t manage to write.
In the following years he was restless. After a long tour in the United States and Canada, he left for Italy with his wife, four children and three maids. Their first stop was in Genoa, where Mary came back to him in a dream. He couldn’t get rid of the sorrowful memories nor relent his sense of loss. In that mood he arrived in the wild countryside around Rome, the campagna romana so many English artists had been fascinated by. As he wrote in his “Pictures from Italy” , he could see but desolation, desert, “a cemetery” and wild shepherds.
One day he managed to see Rome from Monte Mario. It is the end of January, it had been heavily raining for hours, the sky was dark and foggy. “It looks like London!” he uttered. He only noticed St Peter’s dome. But then, when he visited it the next day, he was disappointed. Approaching the Basilica, he saw it smaller and smaller and once inside, though he recognized the majestic and glorious aspect, he compared the place to a goldsmith’s workshop and the decorations to those in a pantomime. No invitation to meditation and reflection. He said only something about St Peter’s statue : inexpressive, nothing thrilling or religious. Yet, Michelangelo’s The Pietà was there, where it is still nowadays.
Neither Roman Carnival seemed to cheer him up, it only astonished him, and he started describing in detail the festival of the “moccoletti”: Romans, old and young, rich and poor, women and children, even clergy men went around holding candles, torches or incandescent firebrands and had fun blowing off one another’s flame, shouting mockingly: “senza moccolo!” (candleless!) Dickens was probably thinking: How ridicolus they are!
He found the Coloseum so impressive and distinctive at first that he had the impression to glimpse thousands of spectators crammed on the bleachers. It was just a moment, though. Once his look moved toward the ruins all around, everything seemed like a cemetery with the amphitheatre at the top. He remembered the bloodshed, the cruelty of ancient Romans and thanked God for the fall of their Empire.
We might even appreciate the writer’s sensitivity, if we didn’t find him, only a few days later, enjoying the show of an execution by the Pope’s hangman at St Giovanni Decollato. He used to enjoy the same kind of shows in London.
He went back home in his usual mood. To go to sea doesn’t help change the mood and doesn’t change life. His went on, the following years filled with professional success but also matrimonial unhappiness. A divorce would be impossible in that epoch, especially to him with his popularity. First he had a wall built in their house to be physically separated from his wife, then he would eventually leave her.
What was the cause of his unhappiness? He wrote: “In my carefree youth my happiness was not fully achieved ... with that regret I found myself alone and desolate in the world”
Probably he was looking for the love he had dreamed of as a young man but never got, the pretty, pure and sweet girl he had depicted in many of his novels.
Like his first love, Maria Beadnell, who had rejected him because he was poor. Now that he was famous and she was married, she wrote to him. He accepted to meet her secretly. But when he did it, he was disappointed: she looked too much like his wife! She had put on weight and breathed with difficulty. The lily I left – he wrote – has become a peony.
He found – or so he believed – his dream girl when he was 47. She was 18-year-old, an actress, her name was Ellen Ternan. Dickens started an affair with her, which would go on for the last 13 years of his life and whose real nature would be ignored until 1990, when Claire Tomalin, published the outcomes of her research in the book, The Invisible Woman. Reading that book you get the impression Dickens wasn’t happy with Ellen either.
With fame and money you can get a girl, but you can’t have your youth back.