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.