Book Review: Charles Dickens — Chronic Liar

By Bill Littlefield

The book’s most damaging and embarrassing charge against Charles Dickens: he was a reckless syphilitic who infected his wife and children.

The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens by Helena Kelly, Pegasus Books, 272 pages

Helena Kelly contends that from the time he first began to impress readers, Charles Dickens “started manipulating his life story for posterity, and always in a way which was likely to appeal to the public and to make him the object of sympathy.”

Kelly argues that Dickens planted various dubious stories with a friend named John Forster, who wrote the first Dickens biography. It was thoroughly authorized. According to Kelly, although some of the stories had some basis in fact, many were distorted to present Dickens in the best possible light. Others were inventions. She maintains that the renowned writer intentionally provided his public with material designed to satisfy the curiosity of his readers while guiding “people away from all the really sensitive topics.” that might have embarrassed the author or diminished his reputation.

Kelly accuses Dickens of using sentimental stories of his impoverished childhood to mask the criminal past of some of his family members. Though he “couldn’t keep his past out of his work completely,” he could “deflect and distract,” according to Kelly. She finds in the novels David Copperfield, Bleak House and elsewhere in Dickens’ writings clever references to the author’s life meant to send literary sleuths in various wrong directions.

Did the extraordinarily prolific Dickens, whom Kelly accuses at one point of laziness, really work that hard to create and sustain a brand? Kelly’s allegations often arrive riding vehicles such as “seems” and “might have been.” Of one particular rumor regarding Dickens’s religious affiliation, Kelly writes: “I don’t think we can be sure it was baseless.” She goes on to conclude that he was anti-Semitic and racist to an extent that can’t be explained by the time and place in which he lived and wrote. In a similar vein, she writes that Dickens “may well have been a lifelong prussic acid addict” adding  — in the interest of further sensationalizing the charge  — that during Dickens’s productive years, “laudanum, too, was easy to buy,” though there is no particular evidence that Dickens was a customer. She also accuses him of multiple instances of plagiarism.

Kelly saves what she considers the most damaging and embarrassing charge against Dickens for the end of her book, where she presents the author as a reckless syphilitic who infected his wife and children. She offers “an educated guess” that he contracted the disease in the early 1840’s, and presents various alleged symptoms — an ulcer, foot pain, restlessness — as evidence for her accusation. She maintains that in “one or two of the smudged photographs which survive of the young Dickens children” there are suggestions of facial evidence of the disease, and that the presence of “guilt-ridden men” in several of the later novels “support the conclusion” that Dickens was aware of his condition and feared exposure.

God help writers who create especially nasty villains.

Smudged photographs, symptoms general enough to resist specific explanation, and the creation of fictional characters ashamed of themselves doesn’t provide a very convincing foundation for the conclusion that Dickens was an irresponsible, guilt-ridden syphilitic. But Kelly is undeterred. This diagnosis is the apparent capstone of her theory that Dickens spent an astonishing amount of energy and time trying to obscure his origins and his condition, both of which, she has determined, he regarded as shameful. She presents his alleged subterfuge as an outrageous insult to his readers and posterity, a sin that needs to be exposed.

Dickens led a relatively long (he died, exhausted, at the age of 58) and exceptionally productive life. He was a disciplined and magnificently prolific writer whose work delighted and still delights a great many readers. He was committed to social causes, many of which can be identified as liberal. He was not a faithful husband, though allegations regarding his relationships with his wife’s sisters remain shaky. He financially supported an enormous number of people for many years. Kelly would like admirers to tack on to that summary of the writer’s career the claim that Dickens was a brain-damaged, irresponsible fraud who exploited the chronic misrepresentation of himself at the expense of his family and the world in general.

The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens brings to mind the question of how much people should concern themselves with the personal lives of the writers and artists whose work they adore. At several points in her expose, Kelly acknowledges that Dickens was a popular and beloved author. Readers may come away from her book wondering why, more than one hundred fifty years after his death, Dickens can’t be granted that worthy distinction rather than be tarred with the characterization that he was a “liar who has succeeded in making us believe his lies for a century and a half.”

Bill Littlefield volunteers with the Emerson Prison Initiative. His most recent novel is Mercy (Black Rose Writing)

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  1. David Daniel on January 28, 2024 at 8:31 pm

    Hmm . . . is Ms. Kelly related to Kitty Kelley, the unauthorized biography of whom was titled: Poison Pen? I must ask Frank Sinatra the next time I speak with him.

  2. Stephen Sakellarios on January 30, 2024 at 4:09 am

    I’ve read this book, and her findings agree with my own independent research. But she still is holding back somewhat. In my opinion, Dickens was actually a literary imposter, and a sociopathic personality. My particular interest in this subject came about when I began to suspect that my own research subjects, American writers Mathew and Abby Whittier, had been the original co-authors of A Christmas Carol. Indeed, I have found quite a bit of evidence suggesting that Dickens merely commercialized their manuscript, sloppily and hurriedly, for some quick cash within six weeks. Definitely, Dickens plagiarized about two pages worth of runaway slave ads in his slavery chapter of American Notes from “American Slavery As It Is” –you can compare them online.

    You can also find in his correspondence, that he protested that he had all the references (which were given in the original) but didn’t bother to mention he had stolen them from another book. People need to look more closely at Dickens, because I think most of the best work he published wasn’t actually his.

  3. Allen Michie on January 31, 2024 at 10:56 am

    Maybe he had foot pain because he walked about 12 miles every day,in an era before they invented cushy walking shoes. But hey, it’s just an educated guess….

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