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Friday, December 02, 2016

Dickens Biography Paints An Intriguing Portrait of a Colorful, Complex Man

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Back in June, I was taking a college class on family history and was given an assignment to research an ancestor by taking a close look at the time and place in which they lived.  One of the methods we could use was to read biographies of famous people who were contemporaries (both in time and place) of said ancestor.  Since my great-great grandfather was born in England less than 20 years after Charles Dickens, I thought it would be intriguing to study up on the well-known novelist.  After reading reviews of a number of biographies, I chose Charles Dickens: A Life by American novelist Jane Smiley.  At just over 200 pages, it's a short but fascinating portrait of one of the most influential men in the history of English literature.

Born on February 7, 1810, Charles was the second of eight children.  His father, a clerk for the Navy Pay Office, was an unscrupulous debtor; when he was imprisoned, Charles had to quit school and work long, grueling hours in a factory to support the family.  This humiliating experience made a lasting impression on Charles, who spent his life championing the poor and unfortunate.  

Despite his low-class background and lack of education, Charles became an almost instant success in the literary world.  While working as a parliamentary reporter, Charles published his first sketch in 1833 at 21 years old.  This and subsequent sketches were unique in that they featured characters and scenes from the lower classes of London society.  Despite the less than highbrow subject matter, Charles' sketches were well-received.  They, along with later writings, proved him to be a keen observer, a philosopher, and a man who knew how to keep readers enthralled.  He went on to pen 15 novels, as well as numerous letters, plays, etc.  A tireless writer and editor, Charles was also a social commentator, an activist, and a philanthropist.  His work, which was popular in his day, continues to be relevant in ours.  Many modern readers adore Dickens, especially his iconic holiday story, A Christmas Carol.  The beloved author died June 9, 1870, in Kent.  

Charles Dickens: A Life draws an intimate, intriguing picture of the acclaimed author.  Although I think I would have preferred a more linear biography, I did enjoy the way Smiley dissected his various works, showing how they were influenced by what was happening in Dickens' life at the time.  Charles Dickens: A Life is not exactly a page turner, but it does make for an interesting read.  Overall, I enjoyed it and learned a great deal about a colorful, complex man.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, non-graphic references to sex and prostitution

To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of Charles Dickens: A Life from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.


  1. I like the idea of reading about someone who lived in the same time as your ancestors but I'd never read about Dickens. I heard enough about the man to have a very low opinion of him.

  2. I will have to check this book out. I just finished The Man Who Invented Christmas...a biography of Charles Dickens by Les Standiford. It sounds like the two books may paint a different picture of Dickens and his success.



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