I came late to my first literary crush, later than most. That Charles Dickens had been dead for almost a 150 years didn’t ease my infatuation, when it finally gripped me. I’d read the obligatory stuff in high school but wasn’t well-formed enough to appreciate it. I knew A Christmas Carol, but mostly by osmosis, not out of a family tradition of reading it aloud or trundling off to the theater to see it every December. So, it surprised me that I became obsessed with retelling it, and doing so, fell hard for the man who wrote it—“The Inimitable Boz” himself. In fact, it’s taken me almost 20 years, a screenplay, and a novel to get over him, if one ever gets over someone who means that much to you.
My book started as a screenplay, a playful twist on how the second most beloved Christmas story in the world came to be. But the plot didn’t take shape until well after the initial idea swirled in my mind, when I bolted upright in bed one morning and knew the whole thing, start to finish, like it had been handed to me in a dream. That should’ve been my first clue that deep stuff was at play. By then, Dickens owned a considerable amount of real estate in my head. The novels helped win me to his side, of course. But it was the biographies and letters, the plumbing of his inky depths, that made me read them in a different way. I became his ardent fan, apologist, sympathizer; I felt close to him—that I was his intimate—and cared for him with an abiding tenderness. I knew his flaws, as a husband and father, but understood the darkness he dealt with all his life, inside and out, and grasped, too, that he leaned toward the light, with a heart as big as the world.
Now, I was its fleeting guardian. Being a believer in symbols and talismans (like Dickens, who had dueling bronze toads on his desk for good luck), I bought a Dickens action figure, all shiny plastic, bright green vest, top hat, with a quill in his fist, ready for anything. It was a small, frivolous thing, but even at five inches tall, he felt like a companion. I had that channeling feeling that if I parked myself at my computer, especially in the wee hours before my conscious mind took the day, Dickens would tell me what to say, exactly how he would say it. He was talking me through it—talking through me—and all I had to do was write it down. I could find my voice in his. It felt like he had picked me. That I was Charles Dickens’ muse.
It wasn’t my first merry-go-round. I’d been captivated by men like Dickens all my life: brilliant, charismatic, complicated, entertaining, suck-all-the-air-out-of-the-room men, deeply flawed, but with that same big heart. My own father, whose coming of age was about as knotty as David Copperfield’s, was the first. And I married another, an accomplished filmmaker with whom I stayed for 23 years. But here was Dickens driving it home, my attraction to men who live an enormous life—almost unimaginable to those of us who sometimes watch instead of do, think instead of talk, hold back instead of lunge forward. I’d internalized, from a young age, the idea that if men like that thought I was special—if they picked me—it conveyed their specialness to me. I could live off the fumes of their big life, too.
My husband liked to tell the story of our meeting, how he looked in my eyes and knew his life would never be the same (and that the party was over). He was in an artistic lull, between movies, ideas, places, women. Unsure of my own aspirations at the time—I had also recently left a career, a relationship, a city—I meant to go to Italy and have affairs with Italian men until the money in my pocket ran out. (I’d gone to grad school there, and squandered my time being serious.) I wanted to reclaim Italy for myself, a symbolic do-over, and decide what the blank slate of my future held. But right in front of me appeared the most compelling man I’d ever met, who’d seen a light in my eyes he believed would change his life. My resistance gave way to falling in love, even embracing my own muse-dom. We were both convinced I could restore him, in some way, that I was necessary to his art, and well-being. And I’d live his big life in the bargain.
I am not their muse, or favorite, or chosen one. I don’t want to be with them; I want to be them—to make and live my own life, as a woman, as a writer, as they do theirs.
It was a marvelous life. In the early years, I followed where his work took him; he came to trust me as a script reader and critic of his writing. We traveled, often to Italy, which he loved as much as I did. (His Italian was wildly more fluid because he’d learned his “on the pillow,” while I stood back constructing the perfect grammatical sentence in my head.) I wasn’t young or pure or without baggage, as so many muses are, but I believed in his art unflinchingly, and was willing to let my life be subsumed in his, my light be reflected, and his bright star guide us.
But the female muse knows it can’t last. She is always, and by necessity, a projection—the man’s anima—his idealized version of who she is, rarely with her own needs, demands, foibles to be tolerated, creativity to be nurtured. As soon as those things rear their ugly/pretty heads, her days are numbered. In this #MeToo moment, when we demand to be seen, heard, and believed, it’s hard to explain why I would sign on to be a projection, except that the muse is a woman perfected, done with the painful birth of her own becoming—she has arrived. What a relief it was, at first. To be chosen instead of having to choose, to critique instead of creating, inspire instead of doing the hard work of committing to my own writing, which would have exposed how unformed and still-becoming I really was. But it didn’t matter. There was no way to sustain being both a muse and my true self.
The sweet, supportive camp follower I was at the beginning fell apart under the weight of my own ambitions, hopes, quirks, and failings, now on vivid display, and competing with his. By the midpoint of my marriage, I knew that most arguments (money, sex, division of labor, time) are really negotiations about power, which is to say, equality. So, I was heartened when my husband told me he’d learned that love is accepting someone else’s subjectivity as being equally valid to one’s own. But that’s when the muse knows the gig is up, and the real marriage begins.
Dickens believed in muses, too. Dumped by his first love, Maria Beadnell, when he was only 18, he came to see her humiliating rejection as the central inspiration for his writing life, that he might prove her wrong about him, after all. His wife’s younger sister, Mary, who he believed embodied everything that was “young beautiful and good,” died in his arms suddenly one night, but lived on in his imagination forever, inspiring his most-loved female character, Little Nell. And then there was his mistress and muse, the young actress Ellen Ternan, for whom he famously left his wife Catherine of 20 years, scandalizing, well, everyone. So, it wasn’t a surprise that a muse showed up in my Dickens story, too, because I was sorting out what it means to love a man like that, to be the muse and then the wife, asking what kind of agency the muse has, anyway, and the wife, who both fear being replaced. As they so often are. And I sometimes was.
Mr. Dickens, it took me a long time to admit, was the problem I was working out in real time—my fantasy of how a man like that might be, at Christmastime, awakening from his Inner Scrooge to an exquisite lucidity and grace that illuminate his own good fortune—how lucky he was to have the love that’d been right in front of him all along, or, as Dickens wrote, “… when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek.” It was what I wanted in my marriage, and could never seem to get right, not the way I wanted it. But I could write it. Mine was a tale of personal redemption, unconditional love, forgiveness, presence, appreciation, awareness. All things that “the magic ring” of Christmas magnifies in us.
Over the next several years, I optioned the screenplay four times, only to endure a handful of heartbreaking near-misses with the big screen. Other projects came and went, but this one I couldn’t give up, as if Dickens and I weren’t done with each other, not yet. It was out of frustration, at first, that I decided to adapt it into a novel, which is how it found, finally and happily, a life. But in another dramatic reverse, when the book came out, so many years after the idea first danced in my head, I had, like Dickens, left my marriage in spectacular fashion (falling in love with a forbidden man), alienating not only my once-husband, probably forever, but also my children, and so many people I loved, who I’d thought might understand.
The sweet, supportive camp follower I was at the beginning fell apart under the weight of my own ambitions, hopes, quirks, and failings.
It scandalized my small city. I was warned that my life would shrink to the size of a postage stamp, which is when I would realize I’d made the worst decision of my life. It rang like a curse. I couldn’t write for almost two years, not a word. My children barely spoke to me. I lost dear friends of two decades. Some averted their eyes in the grocery store; even acquaintances crossed the street to avoid me. People in the business forsook me, without a second thought. My life had shrunk, in unforeseen ways, and I had to fight my way off the postage stamp and back into the world.
But Dickens was still there when I did, even if I now understood him in a different way. When I put the last touches on the novel, I finally knew who he is to me now, and maybe who he’d been all along. I’d stayed with him all those years because he, and the men I’ve loved who are like him, are the underdeveloped masculine in my psyche. I am not their muse, or favorite, or chosen one. I don’t want to be with them; I want to be them—to make and live my own life, as a woman, as a writer, as they do theirs. In this cultural milieu, when the supportive spouse, mistress, or muse steps out from the curtain to claim her own subjectivity, as valid as any man’s, I have Charles Dickens in my corner, and the man I upended my life for, who loves me as I am—as I was all along.
I didn’t find my voice in Dickens’; I found his voice in mine.
Over these many years, my Dickens action figure lost his top hat, dropped his quill. When his lower leg fell off, I tried to fix it, numerous times, then let him sit instead of stand, and finally, reluctantly, bought a replacement. But I couldn’t bear to give up the first, wounded figure. What if he was the magic Dickens? What if it broke the creative spell? Had I not pledged to be his protector, so that he’d protect me?
Only a few weeks ago, trying to make space for the next novel, in my head and on my desk, I picked up the old Dickens, the one I’d invested with all that power. He still made my heart swell; I felt tenderly toward him, and grateful. But it was time for him to go. I don’t know whether our long relationship is complete, but he’s part of me now, and I’m more whole because of it. To my great surprise, I had gone on the journey I’d written for his Inner Scrooge: the alienation, the aloneness, the coming back to the world with new eyes, fierce gratitude for the love that’s in front of me right now, and awareness of my own deep flaws, the darkness inside and out. But still, like my dear friend Charles Dickens, leaning urgently, frantically, always toward the light.