Dickens biographies

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Dickens biographies

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jun 14, 2007, 6:02am

Does anyone have a favourite biography to recommend?


jun 14, 2007, 6:37am

Dickens by Peter Ackroyd. A massive doorstop of a book, but well worth the time.

jun 14, 2007, 9:57pm

Thanks aluva, I'll check it out...

jun 25, 2007, 10:27am

I have a two volumn one entitled "Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, A Biography" by Edgar Johnson. It is published by Simon and Schuster and is possibly out of print by now, but maybe a local library has it.

jun 26, 2007, 11:52am

Re #2:

Your link is to the companion volume of a PBS/BBC series: 192 pages and lots of pictures. I bought a remaindered copy that I haven't gotten around to reading, but it looks to be a quick read. It looks like Ackroyd also has an older biography of Dickens that is more deserving of being called "massive".

jun 26, 2007, 12:17pm

The second one is what I was talking about. I have never seen the short illustrated version.

jun 26, 2007, 9:34pm

It seems the big version went out of print ... I might have snagged a copy on eBay, but I found the 1,000+ page version on eBay (I hope I get it).

There's also a 600 pager ... they still have affordable copies of that on Amazon.com.

jun 27, 2007, 12:36pm

After 3 unsuccessful attempts to post the following as a new topic, I hope people won't mind too terribly much if I piggyback it onto this thread:

Does the 1985 BBC dramatization of The Pickwick Papers do justice to the book? Does it come close?

(I apologize again for being off-topic, but I'd value the input of this group's members.)

jul 2, 2007, 12:17am

The Kaplan biography of Dickens is also excellent. Actually, Kaplan is a better writer than Ackroyd, IMO, and his understanding of Dickens is sensitive. Highly recommended

Redigerat: jul 2, 2007, 1:49am

Thanks for the suggestions. I've just obtained a copy of the condensed version of Peter Ackroyd's Dickens, with 608 pages.

11aces Första inlägget
feb 18, 2008, 11:54am

I enjoyed Charles Dickens: His Life and Work by Stephen Leacock.

feb 26, 2008, 5:39am

Welcome to the Dickens group, aces!

I've downloaded an audio version of G.K.Chesterton's Charles Dickens and am listening to it this week. I haven't got very far with the Ackroyd book yet.

Redigerat: jul 22, 2008, 11:07am

John Forster, Dickens' friend for years, wrote a biography which is fascinating since he actually knew the man well. It was printed in the old Everyman edition in two volumes and can probably still be found in secondhand outlets like abebooks. As an added bonus the books are quite small and can be shoved in a pocket for day to day reading.

jul 22, 2008, 12:04pm

Re: Ackroyd and Dickens - in the first version of the biography Ackroyd included fictional interludes where Dickens meets characters of his own creation; these were subsequently removed, helping to make the shorter version.

jul 22, 2008, 3:16pm

#14 - You're kidding. No, of course you're not, and wouldn''t you figure, I've got what I think is the full beast on my shelf at home. I wonder if perhaps it's just as easy to skip these sections entirely.

I'm still conflicted on the whole topic of literary biography. If I enjoy a writer's work, it's a bit of a blow to discover they're a flaming ***hole and taints subsequent enjoyment. Doubt I'm alone in that...

jul 23, 2008, 10:16am

Jargoneer, have you read the full Ackroyd biography? I remember this caused some controversy when it came out. My copy is the 'expurgated' version. I'd be interested to hear your (or anyone else's) opinion of the excised bits. What do you think Ackroyd was up to there?

jul 23, 2008, 10:48am

Dickens visiting his characters is right up there with Edmund Morris 'observing' a living, breathing Ronald Reagan at various points in his life. That too created quite the controversy. So, before there was the memoirical shitstorm in publishing, there was the biographical shitstorm. I've not read either the Dickens or Reagan, but both sound dreadful on their surface...

jul 23, 2008, 3:08pm

>17 mikeepatrick: - actually the Ackroyd is very good. He uses all his skills as a novelist to tell the life story well and give excellent insights into the work.

>16 tomcatMurr: - from what I remember Ackroyd felt that something was missing from the biography and added the fictional interludes after he had written the rest. Looking at some notes I took at the time of reading, I had forgotten Dickens also meets the author, T.S. Eliot, and a couple of other (of Ackroyd's favourite) writers.
You could argue that Dickens himself inspired these interludes; he claimed that his characters used to visit him in his study when he was writing.
I think Ackroyd used the interludes to discuss aspects of Dickens personality and, especially, his work that wouldn't have fitted easily into the main body of the text.
I suppose in the end, Ackroyd is asking what we expect from a biography - a straight life story? a textual analysis of the work? a psychological profile of the subject?

To counter all this, it is worth remembering that Iain Sinclair when reviewing Ackroyd's London: A Biography claimed it should have been called Ackroyd: A Biography.

jul 23, 2008, 6:44pm

It's interesting that the two commentators on Dicken's I've enjoyed most are Ackroyd and GK Chesterton - I wonder if the fact that they too are/were novelists has anything to do with it.

jul 23, 2008, 9:18pm

Sounds really interesting. I must try to get a copy of the full Ackroyd.
I actually prefer the Kaplan biography of Dickens. It gave more of the sense of Dickens making up his life as he went along, while Ackroyd's bio for me had a sense of inevitability about it. Also, I thought Kaplan was better at the general cultural context surrounding Dickens. But it sounds from what you say that probably the Ackroyd version I read suffered from the excisions. His focus seems to have been with Dickens and his relationship to his own creations.

Chesterton is indeed very insightful. current academic writing on Dickens (most of it turgid and dreadful as you would expect) constantly refers to Chesterton: he seems to be a touchstone of Dickens studies.

jul 24, 2008, 1:11pm

#20 - great post. Your Kaplan comments are interesting for two things that I think quite a lot of biography/history misses: a) if you assume an inevitability to events, you will almost certainly dismiss or underserve points in the story/life where events could easily have branched in another direction, and b) the lack of social context. With regard to the latter, I remember almost throwing Toland's Hitler bio across the room after about 300 pages because there was NO context, and Hitler was only 'allowed' to become Hitler BECAUSE of context. Nothing transpires in a vaccuum.

mar 14, 2009, 11:30pm

I'm having a hard time reconciling a 1200 page edition being pared down to 200 pages...

Amazon has several used copies available at a bargain (of the 1200 page version).

mar 26, 2009, 8:17am

selkierider: Having just finished the 1,200-pager, I'd suggest the 600. A lot of it is really uninteresting stuff like where he was when he wrote a certain installment of Book X or where he went on vacation. (I would have preferred a lot more about his family, personally.)

Redigerat: maj 19, 2009, 10:09pm

It's not actually a biography, and it's not actually "about" Dickens, but I'm currently enjoying Girl in a Blue Dress which is Gaynor Arnold's fictionalization of the Dickens marriage from the wife's point of view. (It was longlisted for both the Man Booker and Orange Broadband prizes.) I'm enjoying it. I had trouble reconciling Dickens's brilliance with marriage to a zombie - which is what she seems in the biographies and CD's own comments. This woman is slow-witted but not actually stupid. The author himself is not portrayed as a prince among men. (That's a bit more than fatuous.) I'll have to go back to the bios when I finish, and I also hope to get Claire Tomalin's Invisible Woman when I finish.

maj 22, 2010, 7:12pm

Here is a rather inclusive and informative review of the Slater bio:


nov 1, 2011, 2:25pm

#26 I read the new Claire Tomalin bio (Charles Dickens: A Life) a couple of weeks ago and thought it was brilliant, very readable. I can't compare it to any other Dickens' bios because it's the first one I've read.

nov 4, 2011, 12:35pm

nov 14, 2011, 11:31am

The Dickens Biography I most want to read is the new one by Claire Tomalin. "Charles Dickens, A Life." (Published in UK by Viking) It's had very good reviews, and of course she has "form" with Dickens, having written the biography of Ellen Ternan some years ago.
Peter Ackroyd's mammoth biography is also worth reading, although his inclusion of fictional interludes was controversial.

nov 19, 2011, 8:43pm

I have an ARC here of Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London, which is a children's biography of Dickens with a focus on poverty (i.e., Dickens' early life growing up poor, his attempts to bring awareness to this issue). The book is coming out on the 29th of this month, and it's worth checking out as primer or for any young ones in your lives.

dec 19, 2011, 7:32pm

A nice overview of some of the more notable of these biographies can be found here: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/7.html

jan 10, 2012, 11:05am

Also, it's probably only a brief overview but there's the Biography Channel video of Dickens's life available here: http://www.biography.com/people/charles-dickens-9274087/videos/charles-dickens-f...

okt 22, 2013, 8:47am

Michael Slater, Claire Tomalin and Edgar Johnson are my favourite Dickens biographers - all excellent reads. Kaplan and Douglas-Fairhurst are also very good. I enjoyed the sprawling Ackroyd doorstopper, very readable, but do not agree with his reasoning or his conclusions about Dickens relationship with Ellen Ternan. I also found there were inconsistencies in the text (e.g. he says that Dickens "almost single-handedly created the modern idea of Christmas" on page 35 of the paperback full length version, but then says Dickens "did not invent Christmas, however, as the more sentimental of his chroniclers have suggested" on page 436).

Forster's biography is essential reading, especially the fascinating first-hand recall of events. However, I wonder how much Forster distorted, given that Ellen Ternan is not mentioned at all (apart from her being listed first in Dickens' will in the annex - funny that the person listed first in the will is invisible in the three volume biography!) Any shade of Dickens not acceptable to Victorian England is erased so we do not find the complete man here. That (and Forster's pomposity) diminishes the biography.

Finally, I love 'Dickens as I knew him" by George Dolby - a fascinating behind the scenes look at Dickens by his friend and manager of the reading tours.

jan 22, 2014, 3:18pm

Charles Dickens (Penguin Lives) by Jane Smiley is a nice, little introduction to Dickens if you're looking for the basics and not an exhaustive biography.