On Killing Charles Dickens, by Zadie Smith

For the first thirty years of my life, I lived within a one-mile radius of Willesden Green Tube Station. It’s true I went to college—I even moved to East London for a bit—but such interludes were brief. I soon returned to my little corner of North West London. Then suddenly, quite abruptly, I left not just the city but England itself. First for Rome, then Boston, and then my beloved New York, where I stayed ten years. When friends asked why I’d left the country, I’d sometimes answer with a joke: Because I don’t want to write a historical novel. Perhaps it was an in-joke: only other English novelists really understood what I meant by it. And there were other, more obvious reasons. My English father had died. My Jamaican mother was pursuing a romance in Ghana. I myself had married an Irish poet who liked travel and adventure and had left the island of his birth at the age of eighteen. My ties to England seemed to be evaporating. I would not say I was entirely tired of London. No, I was not yet—in Samuel Johnson’s famous formulation—“tired of life.” But I was definitely weary of London’s claustrophobic literary world, or at least the role I had been assigned within it: multicultural (aging) wunderkind. Off I went.

Like many expats, we thought about returning. Lots of factors kept us abroad, not least of which the complication of a child, and the roots she swiftly put down. Still, periodically, we would give in to fits of regret and nostalgia, two writers worrying away at the idea that they had travelled too far from the source of their writings. After all, a writer can be deracinated to death. . . . Sometimes, to make ourselves feel better, we’d make the opposite case. Take Irish writers—we’d say to ourselves—take Beckett and Joyce. See also: Edna O’Brien. See also: Colum and Colm. Didn’t they all write about home while living many miles away from it? Then the doubt would creep back in again. (The Irish always being an exceptional case.) What about French writers? Caribbean writers? African writers? Here the data seemed less conclusive. Throughout all this equivocation, I kept clinging to the one piece of data about which I felt certain: any writer who lives in England for any length of time will sooner or later find herself writing a historical novel, whether she wants to or not. Why is that? Sometimes I think it’s because our nostalgia loop is so small—so tight. There are, for example, people in England right now who can bring themselves to Proustian tears at the memory of the Spice Girls or MiniDiscs or phone boxes—it doesn’t take much—and this must all have an effect on our literary culture. The French tend to take the term nouveau roman literally. Meanwhile, the English seem to me constitutionally mesmerized by the past. Even “Middlemarch” is a historical novel! And though plenty English myself, I retained a prejudice against the form, dating back to student days, when we were inclined to think of historical novels as aesthetically and politically conservative by definition.

If you pick up a novel and find that it could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, well, then, that novel is not quite doing its self-described job, is it? Surely, it’s in the very DNA of the novel to be new? So I have always thought. But, over time, the specious logic of these student arguments has come under some pressure, specifically after I read several striking examples of the genre. “Memoirs of Hadrian,” by Marguerite Yourcenar, is not written in Latin, and “Measuring the World,” by my friend Daniel Kehlmann, is not in old German. Even the language of “Wolf Hall” has very little to do with real Tudor syntax: it is Mantellian through and through. All three bring news. Not all historical fiction cosplays its era, and an exploration of the past need not be a slavish imitation of it. You can come at the past from an interrogative angle, or a sly remove, and some historical fiction will radically transform your perspective not just on the past but on the present. These ideas are of course obvious to long-term fans of historical fiction, but they were new to me. I laid down my ideological objection. Which was lucky—and self-serving—because around 2012 I stumbled upon a story from the nineteenth century that I knew at once had my name all over it. It concerned a court battle of 1873—among the longest in British history—in which Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping, claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the long-missing, presumed-drowned heir to the Doughty-Tichborne estate.

The plight of the Tichborne Claimant, as he came to be known, was a cause célèbre of its day, not least because the Claimant’s star witness and stoutest defender turned out to be a Jamaican ex-slave called Andrew Bogle, who had worked for the Tichbornes and insisted that he recognized Sir Roger. Now, one might imagine that the court testimony of a poor black man in 1873 would be met with widespread skepticism, but the British Public—like its cousin, the American People—is full of surprises, and having seen so many working-class defendants mistreated by bourgeois juries, Etonian lawyers, and aristocratic judges, the people were more than ready to support a poor man’s claim to be a rich one. Huge crowds filled the courtroom, eager to see one of their own win, for once. (A perverse sentiment, perhaps, but one we might recognize from the O.J. trial.) Bogle and his butcher became national heroes.

This extraordinary story struck me like a found art object: perfect for my purposes. One of those gifts from the universe a writer gets once in a lifetime. But it was eight years before I finally sat down at my desk to unwrap it. In the meantime, I did everything I could to avoid writing my historical novel. I stayed in America, far from British libraries and court transcripts. We had another child. I wrote four more books. But, through it all, I continued to lurk around the subject in a casual way, like a nervous woman on a dating app, never quite swiping right. I would read a few history books, make some notes, get anxious, put the idea back in the drawer. I still did not want to write a historical novel. I feared the amount of work involved. This worry was not eased by watching my New York neighbor—the aforementioned Daniel Kehlmann—doing the necessary reading for another historical novel, “Tyll,” set in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. He did it at the N.Y.U. playground, while his child played with ours. He did it on park benches. He did it in libraries. He seemed to do it day and night for about five years. Whenever I asked him how it was going, he would say it was exhausting and the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life: “Like doing a Ph.D. and writing a novel simultaneously. So many notes!” I did not like the sound of that. Generally speaking, I don’t make notes. I sit down. I write a novel. But already this non-novel that I was refusing to write had generated a drawer full of notes and a shelf of books. I said to myself: my studying days are over. I said to myself: if you let this happen it will play to your worst, your most long-winded, your most Dickensian instincts. Already every Tichborne thread I pulled seemed to lead to yet another rich tapestry of nineteenth-century life, one that required yet more books to be ordered, and another folder of notes to be made. I was already profoundly boring the members of my household: “Did you know that in 1848 . . . ” I said to myself: Zadie, your novels are long enough when they’re about nothing! What’s going to happen when actual facts are involved? Walk away, Smith, walk away!

Hanging over all this anxiety was the long shadow of Dickens. To be my age, bookish, and born in England was to grow up under that tiresomely gigantic influence. Dickens was everywhere. He was in school and on the shelves at home and in the library. He invented Christmas. He was in politics, influencing changes in labor law, educational law, even copyright law. He was the original working-class hero—radiant symbol of our supposed meritocracy—as well as a crown jewel of the English Heritage tourist industry. (In other words, he was posthumously manipulated by many different sections of British society to score a variety of political points.) He was also everywhere I wanted to be: in the theatre, in Italy, in America. Televised versions of his books were on rotation—there is a case to be made that Dickens is the reason that we have prestige-TV miniseries in the first place—and he was in the goddam Muppets and all over Hollywood, in conscious adaptation and unconscious theft. I personally read far too much of him as a child, and though I grew up to have all the usual doubts and caveats about him—too sentimental, too theatrical, too moralistic, too controlling—I was also never able to quite get out from under his embarrassing influence, as much as I’ve often wanted to. So it went with my surreptitious research. No matter where I found myself in nineteenth-century London, I’d run into Dickens. In the main chapters, in the index, in parentheses or out of them—all roads led back to Charles. There didn’t seem to be a nineteenth-century pot he didn’t have his finger in.

I could be minding my own business reading about, say, an uprising in Jamaica, and suddenly there he was again, signing a petition on the matter. I’d be reading about a long-dead, long-forgotten writer, William Harrison Ainsworth—a resident of my neighborhood—and there Dickens would be, befriending him. I’d read a book about American slavery and discover him in the footnotes! At which point I’d find myself saying, Oh, hi, Charles, like an actual crazy person. Then lockdown arrived, and like everyone else I went a little crazy. I hunted down every out-of-print William Harrison Ainsworth novel. (He wrote more than forty; they’re mostly awful.) I grew increasingly interested in William’s housekeeper, a woman called Eliza Touchet. I became obsessed with the plantation on which Andrew Bogle had been enslaved—the Hope Estate—and the long, brutal entanglement between England and Jamaica. I read several books about the Tichborne Claimant and thought a lot about fraud: fake identities, fake news, fake relationships, fake histories. When I tried to explain to anyone what all these subjects had in common, I did not sound like a person writing a historical novel as much as a person who had entirely lost the plot. Or perhaps: who had rediscovered plot. I called my novel “The Fraud.” And then, in May, 2020, just as I finally put finger to keyboard, we moved back to England, in time to join the British lockdown.

With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I took my regulation walk through the streets like my fellow-Britons, but with the small difference that my eyes always remained above shop level: trained upward to the eaves and the cornices and the chimneys. Toward the nineteenth century, in other words, which is everywhere in North West London, once you start looking. I began haunting the local graveyards. I found William Ainsworth’s grave and Eliza Touchet’s grave, and could point on a map to the unmarked pauper’s grave of the Tichborne Claimant, as well as the corner of King’s Cross where Bogle breathed his last. It was 2020 outside but 1870 in my head. I had effectively completely conceded: I was back in England and I was writing a historical novel. My pride rested now on one principle: no Dickens. This meant—at the very least—no orphans, no lengthy Dickensian descriptions, and absolutely no mean women called Mrs. Spitely or cowards called Mr. Fearfaint, or what have you. To insure this, I was careful to reread no Dickens, and, aside from his frequent appearances in my research materials, I tried my best to put the man out of my mind. But one of the lessons of writing fiction is that truth is stranger than it. The fact that a real person I was writing about was called Eliza Touchet—and that this same woman was beginning to bloom in my mind, until she dwarfed all the other characters—meant that I now had to face the prospect of my novel strongly featuring a woman whose name even Dickens would have considered a bit too on the nose. Touché, Mrs. Touchet! But that wasn’t even the last joke Dickens had to play on me, from beyond the grave.

About halfway through my research, his name started leaping up out of the footnotes and into the main body of the text, as a real-life actor in the events I was concerned with, and it became clear to me that in order to tell the whole of my true story there was really no way to entirely avoid Mr. Charles Dickens making an actual appearance in my actual pages. For several years, he was a regular dinner guest of Ainsworth’s. He was involved in a debate about the future of Jamaica. (He was on the wrong side of the debate.) Most mind-bogglingly, Doughty Street—where Dickens once lived—is in that corner of South East Bloomsbury which belongs to the Doughty-Tichborne estate. Which meant that Dickens’s former home was a piece of what my Claimant was trying to claim. Dickens was everywhere, like weather.

Sometimes, in writing, you have to give up control, take a Zen attitude, and go where you’re being led, which is often right back to where you came from. So I said to Mr. Dickens: Look. You can have a walk-on part, but then I am killing you in the following chapter, straightaway. You won’t be hanging around and you won’t be making any witty speeches or imparting any wisdom. I was as good as my word, killing him in a paragraph, in a very brief, un-Dickensian chapter titled “Dickens Is Dead!” Immediately, I felt that sense of catharsis which people often believe writing brings but which I myself have experienced only rarely. Look at me! (I said to myself.) I just killed Dickens! (By describing his sudden death and subsequent burial at Westminster Abbey.) But, not long after I wrote that triumphant scene, for practical reasons (a flashback) Charles made his inevitable return, appearing as a younger and even more irrepressible force than he had been forty pages earlier. At that point, I gave up. I let him pervade my pages, in the same way he stalks through nineteenth-century London. He’s there in the air and the comedy and the tragedy and the politics and the literature. He’s there where he had no business being (for example, in debates about the future of Jamaica). He’s there as a sometimes oppressive, sometimes irresistible, sometimes delightful, sometimes overcontrolling influence, just as he was in life. Just as he has always been in my life. But childhood influences are like that. They drive you crazy precisely because your debt to them is far larger than you want to know or care to admit. See also: parents.

Eleven years later, at the very end of the long gestation and writing period of my historical novel, I closed my laptop and said to myself: I know he often infuriates you, but the truth is you never could have written this without him. With this debt in mind, then, I decided to do something I have avoided doing all my London life: I made a pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey. Walked around the back to Poets’ Corner and stood right on Charles Dickens’s grave. Oh, hi, Charles. Feeling my debt, but also hoping that it was paid in full, at long last. And when I got back home, completely finished with the unavoidable Mr. Dickens and his influence and wanting to do something that required no reading and no notes and no research at all—something like watching a bit of telly—I turned on the good old BBC, and what was on the menu? A new “Great Expectations.” A “color-blind” version, sure, but still “Great Expectations.” Oh, hi, Charles. Hello and goodbye and hello again. ♦

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