Who Was Charles Dickens?

Other biographies mentioned in this review


by Peter Ackroyd
HarperCollins, 1,195 pp. (1990)
Tate Britain/National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles Dickens; painting by Daniel Maclise, 1839

There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again. I’ve never encountered a life of the Brontës, of Dr. Johnson, of Byron that didn’t grip me.

Another such character is Charles Dickens. His history, of course, is less obviously dramatic than that of Byron, but the turbulence of his emotional life, the violent contradictions in his nature, and the amazing story of his instant accession, before he was twenty-five, to the highest level of literary fame and popularity—where he remained for thirty-five years, and where he still resides—are endlessly recountable, and have indeed been endlessly recounted.

Dickens was born in 1812 and died in 1870, having produced fifteen novels, many of which can confidently be called great, as well as having accomplished outstanding work in activities into which his insatiable need to expend his vast energies—to achieve, to prevail—carried him: journalism, editing, acting, social reform.

He was almost certainly the best-known man in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most loved: his very personal hold on his readers extended from the most distinguished—Queen Victoria, say—to illiterate workers who clubbed together to buy the weekly or monthly parts in which his novels first appeared so that one marginally literate man could read them aloud to his fellows. And this popularity and influence carried to America, Germany, France, and Russia as well. There was universal sorrow when he died. “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning,” wrote Longfellow. “It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

Within months of Dickens’s death the first biographies were appearing, and in 1871 the first volume of the cornerstone of the Dickens biographical industry was published: the long, personal, revelatory Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster, Dickens’s most intimate and trusted friend since they met in their early twenties. Forster told the world much that it did not know, most startling the story of the twelve-year-old Charles’s degrading (to him) employment in the blacking warehouse off the Strand to which his family’s near destitution had condemned him. He adapted this experience for David Copperfield, but no one—not even his children—had known that it was autobiographical.

Dickens never really recovered from the searing despair he felt at this plunge from respectable lower-middle-class family life and decent schooling into semiabandonment, living on his own on sixpence a day in a shabby rented room, his father and family in debtors’ prison:

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age…. No advice, no counsel,…

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