Peter Ackroyd

Dickens

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Dickens Summary

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Dickens (1990) is a biography by English author Peter Ackroyd. Having previously published biographies of English authors, such as Oscar Wilde, Ackroyd pulls from virtually all the research publicly available to create a comprehensive retelling of the life of the popular and enduring nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens, whose most beloved works include Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities. In addition to relating the author’s life-story, Ackroyd contextualizes Dickens’s legacy, placing great emphasis on Dickens’s use of poetic language in novels and the much-loved dramatic readings of his own work.

Born in 1812 in Portsmouth, England, Dickens was the second child of Navy clerk John Dickens and his wife, Elizabeth Dickens. Until the age of ten, Dickens led an idyllic childhood, playing outside and devouring books in equal measure. However, in 1822, the Dickens family moved from a quiet suburb in Kent to the center of London where John endeavored to work off the massive debt he had accrued over the previous years. Two years later, John was sent to debtors’ prison where he was accompanied by Elizabeth and some of their younger children, as was customary in the Victorian Era. That left Charles to board with a number of elderly, impoverished friends of the family. Room and board were not free, and so Dickens dropped out of school and worked at a boot-blacking warehouse ten hours a day, all before he turned thirteen.

Despite the fact that a modest inheritance freed John from debtors’ prison within a year of his imprisonment, his parents did not pay to free Charles from his duties at the boot-blacking warehouse until more than a year later, in 1827. Many historians argue that Dickens blamed his mother for convincing John to keep him at the warehouse so long, leading to a severe emotional estrangement that would manifest itself in how Dickens treated maternal figures in his novels. Ackroyd acknowledges these arguments but also presents evidence to suggest that Dickens held no ill will toward his mother. One of the defining characteristics of this biography, writes The New York Times, is that Ackroyd repeatedly challenges historical assumptions about Dickens’s inner emotional life.

Until the age of twenty, Dickens endeavored to become an actor. He admired comic theater actors like Charles Mathews, whose monologues he memorized and mimicked. Ackroyd, among other Dickens scholars, views the author’s early love of acting as a precursor to the wildly successful public readings he would give after becoming a famous novelist. After a number of failed auditions and missed opportunities, Dickens decided he would pursue fame and fortune a different way: through writing. Starting in 1833, Dickens began a moderately successful career in political journalism, publishing his work in the Morning Chronicle newspaper and various London periodicals. In 1836, Dickens published his first long-form piece of writing, a collection of his earlier work called Sketches by Boz, “Boz” being a family nickname.

When Sketches by Boz became a big hit, a prominent London publishing house approached Dickens to write a series of stories that would accompany engravings by the famous illustrator, Robert Seymour. After Seymour committed suicide, Dickens suggested they replace him with Hablot Knight Browne, a then-unknown illustrator who used the pseudonym, “Phiz.” Their collaboration, The Pickwick Papers, was a huge success, and the two would work together on ten projects during Dickens’s lifetime, including some of the author’s most popular novels. With the publication of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby in 1838, Dickens became one of the most famous writers in the world, as Queen Victoria herself attested to staying up until midnight reading his books.

In 1842, Dickens traveled to the United States where he reported on the horrors of slavery. In an episode that curiously reflects twenty-first-century debates about art, Dickens also spent a great deal of time lobbying famous writers and politicians to fight piracy of his and others’ work. In the end, however, Congress failed to pursue his complaint, as the American press believed Dickens should be grateful to piracy for helping to spread his fame across the Atlantic. Within a year of returning to England, Dickens published A Christmas Carol which, beyond becoming a permanent fixture in Christmas-themed literature, helped spread enthusiasm for the holiday itself across the Western World, according to Ackroyd.

The 1849 publication of David Copperfield signaled to critics–both contemporary and modern–a shift for Dickens toward more serious, ambitious work. Though Dickens was always influenced by his impoverished background and the struggles of the underclass, these themes took on even greater importance in the novels he published over the next decade or so, including  Little Dorrit (1856), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). During the rest of the 1860s, Dickens published less frequently but delivered public readings at a surprising pace, considering his advancing years and deteriorating health.

Sensing he was near death, Dickens began work on what would be his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in 1869. Ackroyd writes that Dickens’s writing became much less embellished and even fell shy of his publisher-imposed word count for the first installment of Edwin Drood. While Dickens was very productive during the daytime, he was forced to drink the opium-based medicine, laudanum, in order to sleep through the pain at night. On June 8, 1970, Dickens died of a stroke at his home, having managed to publish six of twelve planned installments of Edwin Drood.

According to Publishers Weekly, Ackroyd’s Dickens “is likely to stand as the Dickens biography for decades to come.”