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.