This anecdote’s been rattling around my head for a while. It’s related in Jane Smiley’s splendid Penguin Lives study of Charles Dickens. At the time it occurred Dickens was in the planning stages of Little Dorrit–a successful author but feeling increasingly restless in his marriage. He receives a letter from his first love, Maria Beadnell, whom he loved ardently as a young man and who refused him. She is now Mrs. Winter and aged forty-four. His reply is warm and charming. Correspondence flies. She confesses that in the decades since he last saw her she’s grown “toothless, fat, old and ugly.” He responds that he doesn’t believe it.
A meeting is arranged, and as Smiley describes it, “[it] was not a success. Mrs. Winter was as she described herself and, in addition, extremely talkative.”
It’s the letter that Dickens sends after this meeting that I find so horrifying and amusing. Horrifying on Mrs. Winter’s behalf–for obvious reasons.* Amusing because it’s such a perfect specimen of a writer who’s having trouble writing and is in bad temper, on a rampage and behaving badly. Dickens sends it to explain why he must miss a planned engagement:
You have never seen it before you, or lived with it, or had occasion to care about, and you cannot have the necessary consideration for it. “It is only half an hour”–“It is only an afternoon”–“It is only an evening”–people say to me over and over again–but they don’t know that it is impossible to command oneself to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes, or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a day away. These are the penalties paid for writing books. Whoever is devoted to an Art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it.
I like to think that after firing this off, Dickens burst into tears, then got on the computer and played Web Sudoku for an hour.
* In one last burst of writerly bad behavior, Dickens went on to write Mrs. Winter into Little Dorrit as the character Flora, who is portrayed as “fat,” “foolish” and “flirtatious” albeit ultimately “kindhearted.” Poor Mrs. Winter! To her great credit, she seems to have acquitted herself with grace and good humor throughout the entire episode.