Ryelands Publishing (Wellington, Somerset, 2015) – Reviewed by Jan Cooper.
Richard D Ryder’s 2015 book, Inside their Heads: Psychological profiles of Famous People includes Charles Dickens amongst the famous people he looks at.
Ryder is a PhD from Cambridge and was a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Oxford for many years. His previous books include Nelson, Hitler and Diana (2009). In Inside their Heads, he looks at twenty famous people who lived between 1642 and 2013, that is over three and a half centuries. They were writers, scientists, composers, politicians, monarchs, a psychologist (Freud) and ‘warriors’.
Ryder uses biographies as the basis for his analysis, bringing to bear on them his interpretations from a psychiatrist’s point of view. In his Introduction, he observes that some readers may be disturbed by the direct way he deals with sex, just as he would do in psychotherapy. He notes that his subjects are dead, so cannot be embarrassed.
I am not going to attempt to review Ryder’s book as a whole, but to comment on his nine page entry on Dickens. The biographies Ryder relies on are Peter Ackroyd’s, Claire Tomlison’s, and John Forster’s, but he does not quote them, and he mainly refers to Tomlinson. She was, I believe, the first biographer to explicitly focus on Charles’ sexuality, his interest in prostitutes, and his sexual relationship with Ellen Ternan.
Ryder relies on the evidence of Dickens’ distress at his parents placing him in the blacking factory at the age of twelve and his young mother’s preference that he should stay there. He believes this was felt by the boy to be a withdrawal of love, which contributed to his unusual interest in young women. This interest was evident in the way he recruited them into his household (his wife’s sisters) or kept them there (his daughters). It was evident, Ryder believes, in his interest in his ‘Urania Cottage‘ project for young ‘fallen’ women, and in his relationship with Ellen Ternan.
This interpretation is perhaps, plausible, that is, that Dickens’ relationships with women were based on a childhood trauma. After all, Dickens’ melodramatic grief and behaviour regarding the death of Mary Hogarth, his wife Catherine’s young sister, was out of the ordinary to say the least, particularly as it occurred early in his marriage. He made his devotion to her very public.
However, Ryder did not let his case rest there explaining:
“To say that Dickens was primarily a heterosexual paedophile, and that his writing and acting were largely means of seduction and procurement, would be absurd, probably inaccurate and offensive. I am not saying that. But in a society that is still recovering from the Jimmy Saville revelations we can begin to see how, for some celebrities…their celebrity is partly a means to this end.”
If Ryder didn’t mean that, perhaps he should not have said it. To recognise Dickens’ high sex drive, to accept that he visited prostitutes, his dominance in a female household and his relationship with Ternan, is obviously necessary. But surely Dickens was no Robinson Crusoe in the nineteenth century with such behaviour. There is, however, no evidence, that Charles ever preyed on young women or forced his attentions upon them against their will. To have done this would fly in the face of all his writing and all the evidence of his behaviour. When Dickens gave money to waifs on the street he was not soliciting. When he expressed his feeling for Ellen, he negotiated the arrangement with her mother (Ryder suspects he may have had a relationship with the mother). When he set up Urania Cottage, he drew up strict rules for its management and the most detailed study of the Cottage to date suggests no ulterior sexual motives (Ryder thinks there probably was). If there is one message underlying all Dickens’ work, it is that the use of power without consent and understanding is abhorrent. Dickens was very strong on the need for a man to ‘do his duty’ and not take advantage of those in his power, as he told his son Edward when the latter embarked for Australia.
Apart from suggesting things that Ryder says he is not suggesting, I think that another drawback of his analysis is that he considers Dickens in a kind of historical vacuum rather than in the context of Victorian Britain. We should recall the terrible situation of women then – no property after they married, no money, no decent jobs, no security other than that offered by males. The famous man closest in historical time to Dickens in Ryder’s book is Giuseppe Verdi. Was it just a coincidence that he too died surrounded by his women (wife and mistress)? Was it a coincidence that Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins (not in Ryder’s book) also had a ménage à trois which was not only consensual but actively participated in? One of the woman left Wilkie to marry someone, but later returned of her own accord to Wilkie’s household.
Ryder finds the psychiatrists’ concept of ‘hypomania’ applicable to Dickens as he does with some others of his ‘famous people’. He suspects (in his concluding chapter) that it is a secret ingredient in the lives of most if not all high achievers.
The psychiatric textbook, he says, tells us that this condition is characterised by periods of elevated, expansive or irritable mood of at least four days duration, in conjunction with at least three of the following: inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep,
pressure of talk, flight of ideas, distractibility, increased goal-driven activity, excessive involvement with pleasurable activities such as buying sprees, sexual adventures or risky business undertakings.
This is intriguing, and it all fits, more or less, with much of Dickens’ behaviour, but I’ll have to leave the idea with you. It is good to note that Ryder is not saying this is a mental illness, but rather a condition which “…a small but significant part of the human race can utilise [and channel and control] in order to deal with stress and to achieve great things.”