03 January 2014

Charles & Fyodor

In Claire Tomalin's marvellous biography,  Charles Dickens: A Life (2011), she describes an encounter between two of the 19th century's finest writers. In 1862 the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky visited Dickens at the offices of his successful magazine, All the Year Round, at 26 Wellington Street near Covent Garden and just off the Strand. Dostoyevsky had been imprisoned in a cruel Siberian gulag for four years until 1854, and during time convalescencing in the prison hospital he had been able to savour Dickens' Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield. Many years after the meeting in London, Dostoyevsky described what Dickens had told him about the latter's attitude to writing and how he drew on personal inspiration:

The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it's the author's own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine ... in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and the villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those who he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, letter dated 18 July 1878 (OS) & translated by Stephanie Harvey, quoted in Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, London, 2011, p.321-22.

Tomalin comments: 'This is an amazing report, and if Dostoyevsky remembered correctly it must be Dickens' most profound statement about his inner life and his awareness of his own cruelty and bad behaviour. It is as though with Dostoyevsky he could drop the appearance of perfect virtue he felt he had to keep up before the English public. It also suggests that he was drawing his evil characters from a part of himself that he disapproved of and yet could not control'.

See also:
Books: Dostoyevsky, Poor Folk (1846), Crime and Punishment (1866)
Books: Dickens, Great Expectations (1861), Mrs Lirriper's Lodgings (1863 Xmas story)
Blog: Russia, 1 September 2008
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