Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley

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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

The Dickens Works I’d Like to Read Next

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:

Which ones do you think are the best that I should read sooner rather than later?

Reviewed on January 26, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I totally understand your reluctance to delve deeper into Dickens’ life–I really didn’t want to read on with Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life! But, I’m glad that I learned about his childhood, working life, public readings, and charity acts. Maybe I’ll check out some of Smiley’s work in the future (although Tomalin was very good too!)

    • Mandy » I really enjoyed reading a kids biography about Dickens last year that focused on his charity and childhood! I liked that. I have the Tomalin bio on my list as a possible go to but not sure I’m ready for more Dickens at this point! Other than his novels, that is…

  • If you have no desire to read more about Dickens because you’ve recoiled from the more troubled and unpleasant side of his nature, then I think Ms. Smiley didn’t do a very good job as a biographer. She didn’t get you to see all of Dickens…the bright as well as the dark. And there was so very much about him to admire and love. I suggest you try again for a more balanced look at him…try Claire Tomalin’s recent bio. It’s not very long but it’s both honest and affectionate.

    • Jessica Allen » on the contrary, I was already familiar with his charity works (I read a children’s biography last year) and such and Smiley did discuss them, especially in context of his earlier novels. Smiley did talk about his social changes and what he did for both literature and society. What I disliked was learning about his relationships with his associates and especially his wife, that he constantly berated this woman who spent year after year pregnant with his children! (I have a hard time seeing him in an affectionate light when I read of his divorce proceedings, and the unforgiving nature he had towards his friends. He seemed rather two-faced in his public versus private life.) I do think Smiley was quite balanced because those issues certainly were NOT the focus of her biography, that was just the part that made me not so happy with Dickens and not so eager to read a deeper biography.

      If I do feel like reading more about Dickens in the future (maybe after I’ve read more of his novels!) I’ll be sure to pick up the Tomalin bio because you are not the first to suggest it’s an excellent one!

      • To me, he was a tragic figure who hurt and mistreated the people in his life because he was a damaged man, not a bad one. What he did to his wife was terrible, but I think they were so ill-suited, and he lived with her for so long after realizing that there was no deep connection, that the relationship finally became intolerable, something he had to escape from. There’s no defense for the cruelty of the way in which he left her, but I think his personality had become so rigid and controlling by that time, he was simply unable to do any better. We all get shaped by our life experiences to become both good and bad, and Dickens did nothing by halves. His bad could be very bad, but the good was there in very great measure. He didn’t live up to his own vision of the best that humans can be, but who of us does?

        • Jessica Allen » You are much more sympathetic than I am! I agree, none of us are our best…I just felt for his wife, poor woman, having child after child, dealing with postpartum depression, and only getting Dickens bad side out of the bargain…Maybe it’s pregnancy sympathy coming from me since I’m pregnant right now!

          • Oh, congratulations! Yes, anyone who has ever been pregnant will have even more empathy for poor Catherine, and no one can deny she was treated badly. You have to shudder at some of the things Dickens did, especially as he got older, (although I’m reading Ackroyd’s bio now and he uses the word “strange” to describe Dickens even as a young man.) I guess I jumped to his defense because I have such a strong sense of how his childhood experiences shaped him into the man he was, with all his great strengths and great flaws.
            I’ve just discovered your blog, and look forward to more of it in the future…I’m going to read about your 1000 books challenge now…what a great idea! My children are grown and I look back to when they were young and miss the years of cuddling on the sofa and reading together. Enjoy!

  • It’s true about Hard Times. I’ve read a bunch of Dickens and this is by far my least favorite. From your want to read list, I read and really enjoyed both Nicholas and David! 🙂 Especially David actually. Ones I want to read are Little Dorrit and the Old Curiosity Shop… and I’m quite dying to re-read A Tale of Two Cities. I would love to fall in love with Sydney Carten all over again!

    • Suey » ah, so I’m still not looking forward to Hard Times, then! But I’m looking forward to the others you mention. Aren’t rereads great? A TALE OF TWO CITIES wasn’t a favorite for me, but I wonder what a reread will do 🙂

  • Hi Rebecca,

    If you liked Bleak House, I think you will enjoy Little Dorrit as well. It has the same sort of scope and complexity. I personally loved Martin Chuzzlewit as well, but it was the first Dickens I read, so that might color my view a bit.

  • I’m glad you appreciated the Smiley mini-bio. I really like the Penguin Lives series and have a goal to read all of them some day 🙂 The Virginia Woolf one is especially good.
    I haven’t read a ton of Dickens. I am reading Great Expectations now and very much like it. I would recommend David Copperfield for your next read. It is a fantastic story!

    • Anbolyn Potter » I really liked Great Expectations! I think it’s still my favorite Dickens. I think I may read DAVID COPPERFIELD next, especially since I’m coming off the heels of this biography and that’s a biographical novel (to some extent….).

    • Emma @ Words And Peace » yes, he does seem to change … but he was pretty critical of his wife even at the beginning of their marriage! So I wonder if he just had a harder time hiding his dislike for people after his midlife crisis. I really should read that Tomalin bio too. Sounds so good!

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