I am a fan of the Penguin Lives series. I own a copy of Jane Austen by Carol Shields and was more than happy to be asked to review Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley (and James Joyce by Edna O'Brien). The Penguin Lives series is a set of books where famous current authors examine the lives of famous past authors. This leads to insightful reads that give you the highlights of the authors’ lives and works, without becoming tedious lengthy tomes. Jane Smiley is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Thousand Acres (which I read by in the 1990’s long before this blog).
I love Charles Dickens and have enjoyed reading several of his novels in the past and also watching countless screen and stage productions of his works. Smiley presents Dickens as the father of Victorian literature (and who can argue that point?) and the most famous English author besides Shakespeare (ahem, Jane Austen?). “Nevertheless, between December 1, 1833, when his first piece ran in the Monthly Magazine, and November 9, 1838 when Oliver Twist was published in three volumes, Charles Dickens had become the most important literary figure of his day, the first Victorian novelist.” She writes the book from a great point of view, the point of Charles Dickens as he becomes an author with details of his traumatic childhood past only becoming apparent as he grew older and started to explore his past in his writing. Smiley also explores each of his novels; the plot, the process in writing the novel, and the critical and popular reception of the novel. From The Pickwick Papers to the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was fascinating.
Charles Dickens was an incredibly gifted artist with a life that seemed to be a stuff of legends, or one of his novels (which parts of it were included in many of his novels). This book gave me a good overall view of the man, but also included many tidbits that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that Dickens was also an amateur actor. While he didn’t become a famous actor as a young man, he used his acting abilities to entertain his friends and also to create the characters in his novels. I found his process to be fascinating. His children reported in later years that he would speak in strange voices in front of a mirror and then would rush back to his desk and furiously write. Later in life, he used his acting abilities to his advantage and had reading tours for the last ten or fifteen years of his life where he would read and perform passages from his books on stage. What I wouldn’t give to have been in an audience listening to Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol. As Smiley states, “That appropriating, mimicking, and delighting in the plentiful varieties of the English speech was one of Dicken’s signal traits, all of his acquaintances agreed upon, and he was perfectly alive to how speech and characteristic action revealed character.”
Dickens love life was also fascinating. He had a four year “obsession” with his first love Maria Beadnell, but was unable to marry her due to opposition from her family. Hilariously when he met her in later years, he found her to be fat and talkative and therefore created an annoying character in her image in Little Dorrit. He then shortly thereafter married Catherine Hogarth. This marriage was an unhappy one that also produced ten children. He seems to have liked Catherine’s sisters rather than her. Catherine’s sisters Mary and Georgina lived with them at various points in their marriage to help with their children. Some of my favorite passages in this book were where author Jane Smiley let her thoughts be known on how Dickens treated his wife Catherine. One such passage is as follows. “Catherine was pregnant again, with the Dickenses’ eight child, sixth son. As Frederick W. Dupree notes, ‘To his more and more open dismay, she continued to bear him children at brief intervals. . . ‘ The modern reader must wonder how he expected her to stop bearing these children, but nineteenth century sources don’t engage substantively with the harder dilemmas of reproductive rights and choices.” After separating from his wife in 1858, Charles Dickens had a long term relationship with actress Ellen Ternan until his death. There seems to be some debate on whether they were lovers or not . . . I tend to think they were.
I was also fascinated by Charles Dickens philanthropy. In 1839, Dickens met Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy heiress. Together they worked on projects to benefit the needy. As Dickens had been a poor boy with his father in debtors’ prison, working in a blacking factory, he uniquely understood the problems. Unlike other authors of his era, Dickens was a self-made rich man that had lived on the other side. He was also a great walker and liked to walk around the depths of London, seeing the other side of life. He brought his social message into his novels. Oliver Twist explored the underworld of London for a poor boy, Bleak House explored the broken legal system in Britain, Little Dorrit explored the world of debtor’s prison, etc. Dickens pointed out situations that needed to be fixed and that perhaps people in the other classes at that time were not even aware. It makes for a fascinating portrayal of British Victorian society when one reads them our modern perspective. No one was above Dickens critique or use as characters in his novels including friends.
Overall, I found Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley to be a fascinating, succinct portrayal of Dickens life and works. I recommend it to all who would love to learn more about this famous, beloved author, but don’t want to read an in-depth, lengthy analysis.
Interested in Victorian authors? I just posted the sign-up for a Victorian Challenge 2012. As I read this book, I realized that Charles Dickens 200th birthday is in February 2012. Therefore in February, we will focus our challenge on Charles Dickens. I’m going to read Oliver Twist as I must admit I have never read it!
Penguin books has graciously offered a giveaway of one copy of Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley and one copy of James Joyce by Edna O'Brien.
If you would like to win both of this books please leave a comment about what intrigues you about the the books, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, or this review of Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley.
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The deadline for entry is midnight, Friday December 30th.
I am the Environmental Engineering Technology Instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and a mom with three wonderful children; two sons and one daughter. I have loved to read and watch movies since I was a child. I knew my husband was for me when I found him looking through my books in my apartment during our first date and offering his opinion!