Thursday, 16 August 2001

Peter Ackroyd: Dickens (1990)

Edition: Minerva, 1991 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 907

As the most popular writer of his age, and as a social campaigner, Charles Dickens had an immense influence which still shapes modern literature and the culture in which we live - his stories helped shape our ideas of the "traditional" Christmas, apart from the more difficult to trace effects of his writing about social issues.

The man who had this influence was extraordinary in himself as well. As a result, he has always been a magnet for biographers, from his friend John Forster onwards. Ackroyd's acclaimed biography concentrates on what formed Dickens' character, and how his life influenced his fiction.

For someone following a sedentary profession, Dickens had an interesting life, and was certainly an unusual personality. While he could often be the life and soul of any party, his self-centredness made him a difficult person to deal with. This is brought out strongly by Ackroyd, who is also particularly good at retreading the well worn path of his relationship between his life and work (especially his childhood and the probably platonic affair with Ellen Tiernan).

It is probably the case that to write this kind of biography you would need to be a fan, and this is certainly the case with Ackroyd, who likes certain of the novels far more than I do and hasn't really a bad word to say about any. This isn't really a failing, as there is no particular reason why people shouldn't have different opinions, but it does lead to an occasional loss of sympathy on the part of this reader.

Another minor problem with this biography, which reduces its usefulness as any kind of reference, is the lack of dated information. Not only is there no separate chronology of Dickens' life, but there are relatively few dates given in the text; to try to work out, say, the dates of the first and last appearances of Bleak House in serial form is extremely difficult.

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