Mrs Dickens’s Family Christmas on BBC 2 television was a revelation of the cruelty to which Charles Dickens had subjected his wife, Catherine. It was a conclusive indictment of one of England’s greatest writers, including, as it did, documentary evidence from the writer himself. The deed of separation, excluding Catherine Dickens from her own children, and the comments about Catherine in his will, were testimony to Dickens’ spitefulness and bitterness.
Perhaps such a streak in the writer might have been suspected, he has such a profound understanding of dark characters that it might have been expected that there was something of the darkness within Dickens himself. But will comments on Dickens now be prefaced by comments about his misogyny? Or perhaps there will be a revival of commentary on the anti-Semitism he demonstrated in Oliver Twist.
Sometimes writers seem to be separated from their work, sometimes not.
Were every piece of writing or work of art judged on the perceived views of the writer or artist, how much would be left on public display, or be judged fit for broadcast?
Would the books of Henry Williamson, writer of Tarka the Otter, be allowed to be sold? Williamson was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley. Do the racial opinions of Richard Wagner affect listening to his music? Should people object to performances of works from The Ring cycle?
An apparently even more unlikely candidate for opprobrium is P.G. Wodehouse who was captured by the invading Germans in 1940 and made six broadcasts to the United States from the Nazi radio station in Berlin, enraging people in England and ensuring Wodehouse never returned to England. Would Wodehouse’s attitude toward the regime that destroyed Europe be sufficient reason for there to be calls for Jeeves and Wooster to be removed from television schedules?
Sympathies toward the extreme Left were more common than those toward the extreme Right. George Bernard Shaw was an enthusiastic admirer of Josef Stalin to the point of saying that Stalin’s Russia was what would happen if Christ lived now. Stalin was responsible for tens of millions of deaths; even in Shaw’s time there were labour camps, yet he would not see the evil of Soviet Communism. Should the performances of Shaw’s works now be picketed? Shaw was not alone in his support of Soviet Russia, there were plenty in the ranks of the prominent who thought that the Revolution had given birth to some new civilisation, even if they were somewhat reluctant to experience that civilisation for themselves. Does the fact that Picasso said he was a Communist change the way we see his paintings? Does Sartre’s fellow travelling with Communism mean that his writings should be discarded?
Examples of nastiness among the great were commonplace. Dickens seems to have differed little from them.
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