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Book Review: Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley

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Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley describes her 2002 critical biography Charles Dickens: A Life, soon to be available in paperback from Penguin Lives, as an attempt to “get to know him and to achieve what Victorians might have termed ‘a growing intimacy.'” It is less a full-fledged attempt to go into all the details of the author’s life, than it is a sketch of significant moments and relationships and their effects on his novels and other writings. There are of course a raft of lengthy biographies from that of Dickens’ lifelong friend John Forster to scholarly studies like those of Edgar Johnson, Fred Kaplan, Peter Ackroyd and even the recently critically successful 2009 volume by Michael Slater that do the former, and there are a swarm of shorter works that do the latter. Dickens is a writer who surely has received his share of attention, more than his share some might argue. It is not wrong to ask, why another book?

It seems to me that what Smiley gives readers is the perspective of a fellow craftsman. She knows what goes into creating a work of fiction. She can look at the nuts and bolts of a novel and provide insights about how they are put together. It is when she offers this kind of analysis that her book has most to offer. An example or two: she points out how Dickens uses a character’s speech patterns to illustrate character. Alfred Jingle, the comic villain in The Pickwick Papers, normally rambles on in disjointed fragments until he wants to make a point about a money settlement. Then his speech is completely lucid. I have read Pickwick perhaps a half dozen times and never noticed it. Later she points out that “speech is a form of narrative, wherein the speaker narrates his or her own life to others as well as to himself or herself.” She sees this as a kind of intimation of modernity in Dickens. In her discussion of A Christmas Carol, she points out how Dickens makes every line perform more than one function when he is at his best. Descriptive details are there to reveal character as we are shown Scrooge’s reactions rather than told how he feels.

Her evaluations of the various novels are not always in line with more conventional criticism. She is less than thrilled with Bleak House, a favorite of academic critics, and much more admiring of Our Mutual Friend. She says that David Copperfield is “perhaps his greatest” novel — not your typical judgment. She prefers A Tale of Two Cities to Little Dorrit, and she doesn’t seem to value either Hard Times or Great Expectations quite as highly as most modern critics. Whatever her judgments, she always supports them with such interesting readings of the text that they merit serious consideration.

As far as Dickens’ life is concerned, she makes sure to cover most all of the significant events: his parents profligacy and his shame at being forced to work in the blacking factory, his court reporting and his transition to fiction, his American tour, his public readings, his marital troubles and his questionable relationship to Ellen Ternan. She shows his good sides and she shows his warts. He is a man of many contradictions. He could be as generous as the Cheerybles, and as money grubbing as Miss Havisham’s relatives. He could be as steadfast as a Woodcourt and as careless as a Steerforth. He can aspire to the nobility of a Sidney Carton, and act as autocratically as Mr. Dombey. If he doesn’t always practice the Victorian values that his novels seem to preach, Smiley seems to suggest, it is because he is more modern in both his writing as well as in his living than most modern readers give him credit for.

Smiley paints a portrait of Dickens as one of the first examples of public celebrity so common in the contemporary world, but most importantly she sees him as the novelist who has come “closest of all novelists to delivering on that illusory promise of the novel — to tell everything there is to know about everyone, and to tell it in an incomparably fresh and delightful way.” If you want a comprehensive scholarly biography with the latest information, you’d be better off with the Slater book, but if you’re looking for a general introduction to man and his work—”growing intimacy,” Smiley’s book is both readable and illuminating.

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About Jack Goodstein