Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Charles Dickens: A Life
by Jane Smiley
Paperback: 224 pages, November 29, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0143119920
There’s a real art to writing a good biography. It takes great skill to choose how to remake the character you’re writing about including how much external fact and internal perception you want to draw out, and how to contour the story of a entire life with all its tedium and complexity. Smiley does this beautifully in this relatively small biography of a great big man: Charles Dickens: A Life. Though many other biographies have been written of Dickens, Smiley’s remains unique for a number of reasons. The first is that she has done her scholarship and is well versed, not only in the body of Dickens scholarship that precedes hers, but also and primarily, in her deep understanding of Dickens’ work. The biography is drawn around Dickens’ novels, which become the timeline for his life. This makes for fascinating reading, coupling literary criticism with a deep analysis of the relationship between life and art. In particular, the book explores the maturation of Dickens’ vision and maps the development of his work to the events in his life, attempting to find answers to the question of who Dickens was, through the material he left us.
The book begins with The Pickwick Papers, which Dickens published at twenty-four years of age, converting his serialisation of Sketches by Box into the novel we know today. At this point in Dickens’ life, he’s already famous, not only for his work, but for his flamboyant dress, his acting ability, his charm, and his good looks. The success of his first novel set the scene for his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, and the growing relationship between Dickens and his young sister in law Mary, both critical events in Dickens’ life and in the novels he was yet to write. As one might expect from a master novelist like Jane Smiley, the ensuing portrait of Dickens is a rich one, full of the complexities of his unusual character while linking, always, the personal microcosm of Dickens the man with the broader macrocosm of the stories he produced:
He veered between overflowing vitality and prostration in a manner that seems to the modern sensibility almost hysterical. Every stimulus produced an enormous reaction, to the point that right around this period in Dickens’s life, it was rumored that he was mad. Certainly, he was frenzied, and certain, in the grips of inspiration, he had only tenuous control over his facial expressions and his tongue. His daughter Kate as an adult recalled watching Dickens at work; the characters and their voices seemed to possess him–he spoke their lines and acted out their parts as he wrong them down, often looking into a mirror. (23-24)
Throughout Smiley’s Charles Dickens, the prose remains light and the story fast paced, as we move through the defining points in Dickens’ life such as the death of Mary Hogarth or his first trip to the US. In those two examples we’re shown quite clearly the relationship between these avents and, for example, the creation of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, or the growing social reform themes that are explored in Martin Chuzzlewit.
One almost gets a sense that Smiley’s exploration of Dickens is intimate because of the way in which she views him as a colleague. Smiley’s Dickens is a man who, despite his flaws, is always immersed in the role of creating larger meaning from the world around him, twisting the public pressure and personal issues that surrounds his life into “repeated attempts to rationalize the world” (175). There is always an ‘insiders’ perspective to the portrait:
Other thinkers, not novelists, had other ideas about the significance of individuals and individualism, but Dickens’s chosen form saddled him with a philosophical question he tried ardently to solve, both srtisticallya nd personally, for hsi entire life. The controversies that arise about Dickens’s real political views, in my opinion, arise primarily from the fact that a novelist always, and increasingly, sees teh trees rather than the forest, and is naturally unsympathetic to a collective solution, while always more or less in favor of a connective solution. (60)
As the book progresses Smiley explores the notion of the “Dickensian”: Dickens’ use of language, his distinctive and often exaggerated characters, and his progression from a focus on social themes to a focus on personal themes, moving, as Smiley so beautifully puts it, “precisely from particular to particular”. Though Smiley’s Charles Dickens isn’t a large book, it brings to it such a deep and thoughtful scholarship, not so much as historian, but as reader and fellow writer, that it seems comprehensive. The relationships in Dickens’ life from Ellen Ternan who later becomes more of a companion than his estranged wife Catherine, to his famous friends George Dolby, William Thackery, and Wilkie Collins all provide subtle perspective, as we witness their responses to Dickens’ choices through his successes and failures. We observe, especially in Dickens’ later years, his seriousness about theatre, and the way in which he reads and shares his work with the public. Smiley’s Charles Dickens is about more than one man, even a man as grand as Charles Dickens. It’s also about the creative process and what it means to map the “borderline where the inner world and the outer world meet”. Certainly that focus is what makes this version of Charles Dickens a uniquely perceptive and powerful one.