The First True Celebrity of the Arts: Jane Smiley’s ‘Charles Dickens: A Life’

[6 December 2011]

By Catherine Ramsdell

Charles Dickens has been the subject of many biographies. In fact, Jane Smiley mentions several of them in the introduction to Charles Dickens: A Life. She notes that Dickens’s friend John Forster published one shortly after Dickens’s death and that most recently Peter Ackroyd penned a 1,000+ page biography.  With dozens of biographies on Dickens (as well as collections of published letters, numerous books of criticism, and biographies of his friends and family), one might wonder if there is room on the shelf for yet another book about Charles Dickens.  After all, even Smiley states that “The interested reader could well read all Dickens, all the time, for several years”.

Don’t worry—Smiley’s text won’t take up much room on a bookshelf and, unlike most of Dickens’s own books, won’t take much more than an afternoon to read. It will, however, leave readers with “what Victorians might have termed ‘a growing intimacy’” of all things Dickensian.

Smiley, whose book A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, puts her own spin on Dickens’s life. Analyzing his world and works perhaps only as a fellow author could, Smiley blends literary criticism with biographical information. Her aim: “to evoke Dickens as he might have seemed to his contemporary audience, to friends and relatives, to intimate acquaintances, to himself, filling in the background only as he became willing to address it in his work”.

Perhaps equally important is what she wants to avoid: “My purpose here is to avoid the dreary illusion of superiority that comes when critics and biographers purport to know a subject better than (or more truthfully than or more insightfully than) the subject knew himself”.

And Smiley does it all in beautiful prose. Taking the untraditional route of not recording Dickens’s life in chronological order, Smiley relates “No author’s life is a strand of pearls, with books or plays or poems strung in a neat sequence upon a smooth string of personal events, but Dickens’s life is even less sequential than most”.

Despite the glut of Dickens’s material (and the number of inexcusably bad adaptations of The Christmas Carol that always seems to overtake American cable television between Thanksgiving and Christmas), there is something so timely about Charles Dickens: A Life. Smiley notes “If we see Dickens as the first true celebrity of the popular arts—that is, a man whose work made him rich and widely famous, as close to a household name as any movie star is today—then we can also see him as the first person to become a ‘name brand’”. 

Of course, Smiley provides a great deal of information one would expect to find in a biography—important dates (births, deaths, weddings), publication and sales information for all Dickens’s books, background on the periodicals he helped found or edit, and details about his relationship with his wife, his children, other women, and other authors. She includes information about his trips to America and his divorce. Smiley notes his interest in theatre and details his numerous public appearances. Still much of this factual information can be found in other sources; what makes Charles Dickens: A Life are Smiley’s own observations—both on Dickens and on being a novelist.
Some are, like her thoughts on Little Dorrit—“The plot of Little Dorrit is overelaborate and creaky”—fun in their elegant simplicity.  Other observations are more complex: 

Dickens and his work had always been contradictory. He professed virtue, and acted virtuously in the world, but he was drawn to crime, criminals, prostitutes, detectives, social disruption, and the Victorian underworld of hypocrisy… Every novel he wrote explored innocence, but his innocent characters are far less alive than the villains, ne’er-do-wells, social climbers, usurers… and madmen who surround them.”

Many of her observations blend the public and private or personal and professional Dickens. But then again, as Smiley notes, the public and the private Dickens are hard to separate. She contends “Charles Dickens was so thoroughly a novelist that we can hardly know him at all without following him into every novel”.  Perhaps this is why, at the end of the For Further Reading section, Smiley suggests “But the newcomer to Dickens can do no better than to begin with a novel—my suggestion is David Copperfield, to be followed by Great Expectations, Dombey and Son, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend, in that order, light, dark, light, dark, light, a wonderful chiaroscuro of Dickens’s most characteristic and accessible work”.

My suggestion—sneak Charles Dickens: A Life into that list and spend a day learning about the art of novel writing and getting “Dickensy”.

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