Book Review: Charles Dickens: a life by Jane Smiley

Charles Dickens: a life–by Jane Smiley is a pleasant biography to read.  It was published in 2002.  It is one of the books I bought last spring in Paris at Shakespeare and Co.

Dickens was a storyteller and he did it well.  It’s always interesting to reflect that his popular works were written in sections, and published in monthly and weekly magazines.  The public looked forward to each new segment.  At one point, Dickens overheard a woman asking a newsman whether the new Dickens piece was out yet.  Dickens was amused because he hadn’t even written it yet!

Charles Dickens was an enterprising young man and continued to be so all of his life.  He wrote not just to entertain—and he surely did, and worked hard to keep his readers–but he also sought to “improve” and “enlighten” his public.

He set the world on its ear by writing from the viewpoint of a child–something that had not been done–and that of a child in poverty as well, as in Oliver Twist.  He also brought novel readers to the city.  Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott had written about and “owned” the countryside.  Dickens introduced a whole different world –that of the poor living in the city.

Dickens was well read and enjoyed performing in skits and plays.  He was a short man, a dapper dresser, very popular and always on the current scene in London.

Dickens was married to Catherine and together they raised ten children, eight of which were sons.   He was close to his daughters in later life, but only one son, Henry,  became successful.  Dickens’s parents and own brothers were often a problem in his life, not choosing wisely in occupation or industry of finance.  (That really is my own term–I like it–“industry of finance”.  Do you suppose it means being careful with money?  I hope so.)

There has always been speculation that Dickens was close to another woman in his life, but Jane Smiley doesn’t dwell on that aspect, instead turning our attention away–maybe because of the secretiveness that Dickens himself kept about it.

One of the nice things about reading this biography is the general, and sometimes in-depth, reviews of Dickens’ novels.  It makes you want to select one to read or reread this winter.

And speaking of winter, in some areas of the United States, Dickens’ great-great grandson goes about giving public readings of Dickens’ works, especially at Christmastime.   That’s exactly what Dickens himself did, too.  This great-great grandson is a descendent of Henry Dickens.  And with this being the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ life, he just might come to our area again.  If so, I plan to go to listen.

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