Friday, December 2, 2011

Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley — 224 pgs

A celebrity before the days of celebrity, Charles Dickens was a genius and an enigma who created some of the most potent novels in history. Behind the scenes, Dickens was a man unlike any other, with strange beliefs, warring passions and an eclectic lifestyle. In this biography by famous author Jane Smiley, Dickens’ life and works are explored in great depth and with generous helpings of sympathy, interest and wonder. From his secrecy about his troubled childhood to his eventual marriage to a woman whom he would one day repudiate, Smiley gives us a profound insight into the inner workings of the man whose fame seemed to be ever increasing. She shares with her readers his rapturous enjoyment of his notoriety and reveals the ways Dickens sought to eradicate society’s social and political ills through his stories. She also sheds light on how he unintentionally captured the personalities and behaviors of both himself and his counterparts in his amazingly fluid and distinctive tales. Smiley reveals all this with a deep sense of understanding and intimate knowledge that mirrors the devotion of his many fans, and even the critics who panned him. Part biography, part literary critique, Charles Dickens: A Life is at once a fascinating study of a man who was ahead of his time and also, tragically, a product of it.

Though I haven’t read Dickens’ work extensively, I do consider him to be one of my favorite authors, and I’m constantly amazed at the unique and sensitive qualities of his writing. I am, in fact, so interested in Dickens and his work that I’m trying to undertake a project where I read all his published work incrementally throughout the new year. It's a vast undertaking, for most of Dickens’ books are very long, but I hope one day to be able to complete this journey through the works of an author whom I find amazing and inimitable. When I was approached to review this book, I did a happy little dance of joy and immediately said yes, for I could think of no better way to get close to this author than to read about his life and work in biographical form. This book was entrancing from the outset, and Smiley’s manipulation of her material was both expert and alluring. I learned so much about Dickens that I felt, as I closed the covers, as if I had gotten an intimate peek into the mind of a man who defies easy description.

As many readers of Dickens will attest, there is no one who writes a story in quite the way this man did. Many other authors manage to imitate him in their rich portrayal of character, but there is truly only one Dickens, and love him or hate him, this cannot be denied. One of the things that was most interesting about this book was discovering that each story he wrote had a good deal of autobiographical material threaded through it, and as Dickens matured as an author and his perceptions of the world changed, his characters also grew more evolved and multifaceted. Many of his characters were archetypes, and many of them were based on the very people he lived with, worked with or associated closely with. I found it interesting that Dickens seemed to have only two or three versions of the women in his tales, and these women were based on the limited and very prejudicial beliefs that he held. Most of his female characters were either based on his wife (who, in later years, he held little esteem for) or took on the virginal and unsullied role of those paramours that Dickens always kept out of public sight. It's stated rather clearly that it's only at the end of his life that Dickens truly began to understand women, and this also was reflected in his work.

Dickens was also very adept at making social statements and addressing pressing public concerns in his work, and used the platform of his novels to share his disgust and sadness at the failure of the system to adequately provide for the lower class. Much of his work has the hallmark of broaching topics of public sanitation, the workhouse, orphanages, and other systems where people fall through the cracks and are forgotten. Though these are topics he includes in his books, these aren’t the subjects of his books, and in his own way Dickens creates a pastiche of narrative, character and drama with an underlying and low level admonishment of the system that so many found themselves at the mercy of. Dickens sought to entertain but also to educate, and in this light, his work takes on a new meaning and portent that most modern readers remain unaware of. Not only was Dickens a very successful author, he was arguably the first celebrity to ever take the stage, with dramatic readings and recitations punctuating his literary work.

The one area where I have a bone to pick with Dickens is in his abysmal treatment of his wife. While it's true she wasn’t his first choice, as time went on and she made the gradual transition from paramour to maternal figure, Dickens seemed to gradually devalue her and make increasingly impractical demands of her. It seems he could only think of women in very limited ways, and her gradual transition from one type of woman to another drew his ire and ill-concealed hatred. It's also worth noting that Dickens’ life was marked by considerable restlessness and a desire for concealment and movement. The fact that he had scores of children and a wife who was more content to stay put was just another annoyance that he seemed to never get over. As an artist, Dickens was sublime, but as an everyday man, he was irascible and demanding, and I doubt I would have wanted to know him personally, though at times he was known to be generous, kind and exciting.

I had the time of my life with this book, getting to know both the very private and illustrious public sides of Dickens’ life. I would recommend this book to readers who are fans of his work or are just curious about the legendary artist who swept the country by storm and created the “domestic drama,” a type of novel that had never been attempted before. It was a pleasure to read this biography because, while it was clear that Smiley much admired and touted Dickens and his work, she was not blinded by his stardom and was able to paint the man behind the words with realism, honesty and impartiality. A very solid biography. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

31 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

I am going to return to read your review of this one later, as I just checked this book out of the library yesterday. I did peek to see if you had it as a "recommended" and am happy to see that you do!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard elsewhere that Dickens was not going to win any Husband of the Year awards. Actually I have this book too but was afraid from the blurb that I would have to be more familiar with all the books before reading it, but now I feel more safe in proceeding!

bermudaonion said...

Oh, I bet this is a good one! I got a peek into Dickens' life when I read Drood by Dan Simmons and found it fascinating.

JaneGS said...

Wonderful review--I love bios and will definitely read this one. The last bio I read of Dickens was Ackroyd's and when I read about his treatment of his wife I stopped reading Dickens. I'm finally over it, and plan to read Little Dorrit soon, but still! Another fascinating book is The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomlin, about Nelly Ternan.

I really enjoyed this review--well done.

Trisha said...

My experience with Dickens is embarrassingly shallow, but I have him waiting there on the TBR shelves...

reviewsbylola said...

I am with Trisha--I certainly need to read more Dickens. His life fascinates me though, so this book sounds like something I would enjoy. Have you read Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold? It's about Dickens's marriage, fictionalized, and I thought it was really good.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Paramours? You mean there were others besides Ellen Tiernan? I'm really interested in this book, because Dickens' life was always so fascinating. If you don't know more about him, you're going to think he's this kind grandfatherly figure, but he was more complex than that. Somehow, I'm still having difficulty comprehending that the person who mistreated his wife and the author who wrote A Christmas Carol are one and the same.

Ti said...

In college we read a lot of Dickens but I didn't appreciate his writing until I was much older. It doesn't surprise me that he treated his wife so poorly. Women were not well respected back.

Suko said...

Excellent, incisive review. Dickens' treatment of his wife would really bother me deeply. In fact, it might turn me off to his work.

Tracy said...

I have Peter Ackrotyd's bio of Dickens to read next year, but this one sounds pretty good too. I've not read any of Dickens' novels yet, I was hoping finding out more about his life would tempt me to read his novels.

nomadreader said...

I enjoy Dickens too, although I haven't read that much of his work. This biography looks great, and I love that it's only 224 pages. Perhaps that's bad of me to say, but I often struggle with long biographies. I'm off to get this one from the library!

Jenny said...

Sounds interesting! I've never been a big Dickens fan but have always WANTED to be. I feel like one of these days I'm going to come around to him and love him, but I know it won't happen if I read a biography of him. I will just get very very very cross about his treatment of his wife, of which currently I am only tangentially aware. :p

Jenners said...

I think it is wonderful when a "real" writer like Jane Smiley takes on a biography of a writer that, it seems, obvious she admires. It seems typical of many "geniuses" to turn out to be a bit of a nasty person in their personal lives. One wonders if that it goes with the territory.

Vasilly said...

This sounds so good! As a person Dickens sounds pretty horrible but what he's done for literature is pretty inspiring. I plan on reading A Christmas Carol this week. I think I'll pick this up to read too. Great review.

TheBookGirl said...

Well I have to say a big oops here..I just took a second look at the book I took out from the library, and realized that it is not this Dickens bio, but a different one, the new one by Claire Tomalin.

Sorry about that :(

But on the plus side, I could now read your review, and as usual, it was fantastic :)
I had known about the ill treatment of his wife but I would love to read this book for the literary critique of his work since he is one of my favorite authors. I think the bio I have here is the of the more traditional variety.

Amy said...

Wow, you actually make me want to read a Dickens novel... and that is a feat that hasn't been accomplished before by anyone else! I've always seen his works as dry and boring for some reason, though I've never read them. This sounds really interesting, and good luck with your project, sounds fantastic.

Harvee/Book Dilettante said...

A book I'd love to read, having read Dickens quite a bit during school. Finding out more about his life and reading critiques of his books must be fascinating.

Jenny said...

I've been wanting to read all of Dickens's work too! I'm glad you liked this. I think I was too distracted with work stress to be able to enjoy this, and I sort of felt it was written sort of like an essay but I will return to it!

softdrink said...

I haven't read Dickens since high school. I didn't realize the man was such a jerk to his wife. Kinda reminds me of Tolstoy...

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This does sound fascinating. One of my self imposed goals for 2012 is to read a few books by Dickens as it has been way too long (like 40 years) LOL

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Is it terrible that I've never read a Dickens novel?

Zibilee said...

Darlyn:
The author alluded to the fact that Dickens may have had some sort of relationship with his wife's sister before she died, and speculates that there may have been others that were a lot less publicized.

Heather:
Not terrible at all! You are just ripe for a great opportunity!

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Oh I do love Dickens' writing! I'm with you for a group read next year - I'd love to read about miss havisham again! But how awful for him to be a yucky husband. I will have to pick up a copy of this one. Thanks for sharing.

Lisa said...

I have a hard time convincing my family that I ever need books as gifts, but I think my Dickens' loving husband might be convinced that this is book he could make an exception for!

Alison's Book Marks said...

Wonderful review! I'm going to have to pay closer attention to the women in his stories, to see if there are any parallels to how he sees women in real life and how he draws their characters.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I love Jane Smiley's fiction, but have yet to read any nonfiction of hers. What a great combination - learning about Dickens' life through the words of one of my favorite writers.

Thanks for the recommendation, Heather!

Beth F said...

This one is on my to read this winter list. I love Smiley and Dickens and I bet I love the combination.

Amy said...

This book sounds so interesting and I like Jane smiley's writing. I haven't read much by Dickens at all. I'd like too. I like knowing that there' autobiographcal info in most of his stories. I didn't realize he treated his wife poorly, either. I wonder why he even married her. It's sad and disappointing. When I finally read some of his work, I'll definitely pay attention to the female characters!

Nymeth said...

I'd love to read a bio of Dickens, but I think I'll get more out of it if I read more of his fiction first. Also, it would be interesting to compare this with the recent Claire Tomalin biography!

Aths said...

I am intrigued by Charles Dickens' treatment of his wife. It's something I hadn't heard about until recently. This man is so revered in all circles, and I'm glad his good stuff is well-known, but it's also necessary the not-so-good things about him be out too, so that we know enough about the kind of people we worship. I will be looking for this book.

Jillian said...

I saw this at a bookstore the other day and almost bought it. I really, really need to read a Dickens biography.

Your Dickens project sounds interesting!

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