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Book Review: Charles Dickens by Michael Slater

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When you decide to write a new biography of someone who already has a shelf full of tomes, with at least one of them claiming to be definitive, you need some sort of hook to hang it on, something to justify its existence. A trunk filled with newly discovered letters would be nice, or perhaps a newly complete collection of correspondence. A new journal, a long lost manuscript, a freshly resurrected contemporary account: any of these might do in a pinch. Such historical artifacts wanting, an author is left to find some novel intellectual approach to take to the material.

Such, of course is the problem awaiting any would be biographer of Charles Dickens. There is a contemporary account of his life by his long time friend John Forster. There is a G. K. Chesterton life that some credit with a Dickens revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. There is a massive two volume scholarly biography from 1953 by Edgar Johnson, which makes a reasonable claim to tell us everything we ever might have wanted to know about the novelist, and if we still had any questions, Peter Ackroyd added another equally massive one volume tome in 1992, and dished a little Dickens dirt while doing so.

Faced with this problem, Michael Slater's Charles Dickens, a new biography of this most eminent of the eminent Victorians, focuses on the prolific author's impressive output in the variety of lesser genres, those often given short shrift in contrast to the understandably lavish attention given to the novels. He says in a short preface that he has "been particularly concerned to place his novels in the context of the truly prodigious amount of other writing that he was constantly producing alongside the serial writing of these books, and to explore the web of connections between them and it, as well as connections with his superlative letters and his personal life." He goes on to point out that while these "other" writings contain much that is both characteristic of Dickens' major works and useful in understanding them, they are little known by any other than the Dickens aficionados and specialists.

Slater has a point. Dickens was a prolific writer. While working on his novels, he wrote sketches, letters, reviews and occasional essays for contemporary periodicals. He wrote pieces for the stage. He wrote shorter tales, travel books and a history for children. Some of this writing, like the annual Christmas tales were among Dickens most popular with his contemporaries, despite the fact that it is probably only A Christmas Carol that remains popular today. And as Slater's impressive scholarship shows, this work is indeed a neglected goldmine filled with nuggets of insight into the novels' themes, characters and plots, and in some cases an intrinsic value of its own.

If at times, Slater seems more concerned with the writing than the life — he barely mentions, for example, the birth of Dickens' son Walter, concentrating instead on the author's labor pains with Barnaby Rudge — who can gainsay him? After all, the only reason we are reading Dickens' life is that he wrote Barnaby Rudge, well, maybe not Barnaby Rudge, specifically, but the novels that it stands for. Still, while the details of Dickens' life are here, they are sketchy at best, and if a reader is looking for a complete account of the writer's life rather than insights into his work, there are certainly better places to go.

Slater's Dickens biography is probably better suited to the scholar and the enthusiast than it is to the general reader, to the reader who wants to learn something about "The Mudfog Papers," The Haunted Man, Sunday Under Three Heads, and countless other minor pieces. The story of his life is here, but the reader will have to dig through a lot of ephemera to get at it.

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