I had never before read a biography of Charles Dickens, but having read 7½ works by the author1, I’ve generated a good idea of the issues that are important to him.
Andrea Warren’s new biography for young readers wonderfully captures the man and his stories. Although Charles Dickens and the Street Child of London (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to be published September 26, 2011) was a short book, I finished it was a greater appreciation and understanding for Charles Dickens, an eagerness to read the rest of Dickens’ novels, and above all else, a desire to do something myself, for Charles Dickens’ story of social change inspires others to do something to make a difference.
For anyone who thinks fiction unimportant, they should read the story of Charles Dickens’ life and writing career.
Charles Dickens had a difficult childhood. Although born to a man of status, his father’s frequent debts eventually landed the family in debtors’ prison, and at age 12, to his horror, Charles Dickens was sent to work at a factory. His father was in and out of debtor’s prison, and so he became a working child, only having the opportunity to attend school for a short time. This extended childhood in the life of the working class gave Charles Dickens an insight beyond that which the wealthy were typically aware of. Although a legacy from a dead relative gave his family the chance to rise above their debt, he never took for granted the fact that he had a way out of the blacking factory.
Alongside Dickens’ experiences, Ms Warren captures the life of the rest of the working classes, those that didn’t have any hope of escaping the daily grind of monotony, that didn’t know how to read, and that hadn’t learned manners and proper speaking that allowed Charles Dickens to rise above his tumultuous childhood. These stories were heartbreaking. Occasional photos and illustrations in the book brought these stories to life for me. Charles Dickens did not have it so bad, compared to these other children!
When Charles Dickens was in his twenties, he was placed in a lawyer’s office as a clerk and learned much about politics and law. He also had the chance to write. His popular collection of amusing escapades, The Pickwick Papers, was serialized when he was 25 and 26 years old. As he saw the amazing success of these stories, he determined to write about matters close to his heart and experience. He knew that politicians weren’t making progress on righting the situation of the poor in England, and he hoped that alerting the wealthy of the plight of the poor might make a difference.
Dickens’ novels did make a difference. In her biography, Ms Warren discusses the ways that the popularity of the novels prompted social change. She details Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and others, giving some key plot points and social issues, but without giving up too much.2 In short, I thought her discussion of the books was perfectly done. I learned just enough that now I cannot wait to read the other novels. I now have context as to the reasons Dickens wrote and the impact his writings have. It will help me as I read the novels for myself.
Ms. Warren did discuss Dickens’ private family life in a few chapters. But hers was mostly a biography of Dickens’ power for social change, as well as some information about others in the era that also helped society. I was fascinated and inspired. After the biography ends, Ms Warren includes some facts about the social issues and extends the issues to today. She even has a list of ways that we can help. I loved this extension to me. Not only do I now want to read Dickens, I want to try to make a difference in some way.
As one of Dickens’ sons said, “Sons of great men are not usually as great as their fathers. You cannot get two Charles Dickens in one generation.” Charles Dickens’ power to change society was impressive. I love that his weapon of choice was his pen, and the medium was fiction.
Although this post is not for the current Classics Circuit (Dueling Authors: Austen versus Dickens3), I feel like I must say here that I think of the two authors, Dickens wins, hands down. Obviously, the two authors are very different. But Dickens changed society through his novels in a way that the amusing and fun Jane Austen never did. I cannot wait to read more Dickens.
Note: I read Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London for review via netgalley.com, courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children. I was not compensated for this review. Cover image above courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children.
- A Christmas Carol, three other Christmas novellas, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and half of The Pickwick Papers ↩
- she does reveal the happy endings of some books. Given Dickens’ hopes to reform society, these seem rather obvious to me, but then, I don’t personally care about spoilers. She does not reveal nearly as many plot details as the author of the Jane Austen biography did. ↩
- I’m posting on Pickwick on Friday ↩