I really love to sink in to a deep, many-hundred-page biography about a fascinating person, but I don’t always have time to do so. Jane Smiley’s biography of Charles Dickens (a part of the Penguin Lives series) is the opposite of a deep biography: it’s a succinct but relevant overview of Dickens’ life by looking at the works he created and his correspondence with associates.
To be honest, now that I’ve learned even just 200 pages worth about the man, his personality, and his life, I’m not sure I want to delve deeper. This is a testament to Ms Smiley’s ability to focus on the most important aspects of the author’s life, for her volume satisfied many of my curiosities. It also managed to frustrate me because as I got to know this remarkable author I so admire for his writing, I found he was a rather unpleasant and unforgiving person to his family and friends.
That’s not to say that Charles Dickens is portrayed as all “bad” in this book. In the past, I’ve read a children’s biography of Charles Dickens that focused on his childhood difficulties, his later charity work, and the ways in which his novels promoted social change, all of which are fascinating in considering his impact on society. Ms Smiley likewise reviews these public influences of the author. Yet, Charles Dickens was obviously a complicated man, and learning about his more private life was not as inspiring. (ETA: This paragraph added Jan 27.)
Nevertheless, in the future, I think I’d rather approach Charles Dickens simply through the novels he wrote.
Because Jane Smiley’s biography is so brief, I don’t feel like I need to say too much about it: it speaks for itself. In the preface, I really liked Smiley’s introduction to the man:
He was, in short, an object of fascination, a true celebrity (maybe the first true celebrity in the modern sense), a social phenomenon, a figure unique among his contemporaries and yet representative of them, as they themselves understood. Among English writers, Dickens’s only peer, in terms of general fame, worldwide literary stature, and essential Englishness is William Shakespeare…” (page vii)
She goes on to explain her purpose in the volume, which she obviously recognizes cannot be to provide a comprehensive picture of his life:
“I will attempt to evoke Dickens as he might have seemed to his contemporary audience, to friends and relatives, to intimate acquaintances, to himself, filling in the background only as he became willing to address it in his work.”
As such, I should note that Smiley does indeed discuss Dickens’ works in detail, which some readers (those who believe in spoilers) may not appreciate. For example, since Dickens never revealed his childhood disappointments such as working in the blacking factory, Smiley does discuss how the novel David Copperfield allowed Dickens to bring out some of the issues he may have been internally dealing with, for some of that novel provides similar details to Dickens’ childhood. Also, Dickens’ changing relationships with his wife (whom he divorced in the 1850s) may have had an impact on his approach to women in his later novels.
For me, it seemed discussing his life in context of what he wrote throughout his life seemed perfectly appropriate. Given the complexities of Dickens’ long novels, I did not feel Smiley revealed too much, although as I’ve said before, I have a hard time considering knowing basic plot details as “spoilers” of a novel.
At any rate, I really enjoyed Jane Smiley’s contribution to the Penguin Lives series, and I look forward to learning about other important historical figures by finding other books in the series.
And then for fun, here are some lists of Dickens’ works. (Links are to Wikipedia)
The Dickens Works I’ve Read
- Great Expectations
- The Adventures of Oliver Twist
- Bleak House
- The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
- A Tale of Two Cities
- The Christmas books: A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain
The Dickens Works I’d Like to Read Next
- The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
- The Old Curiosity Shop
- David Copperfield
- Our Mutual Friend
I also own Hard Times but I’m not excited about that one as it sounds both dark and unpolished. And I don’t know much about these other novels:
- Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty
- The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
- Dombey and Son
- Hard Times: For These Times
- Little Dorrit
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood
- Sketches by Boz
Which ones do you think are the best that I should read sooner rather than later?