In this monumental, 1184-page biography, Dickens has acquired a contemporary voice. Ackroyd, biographer (T.S. Eliot, 1984) and novelist (First Light, 1989, etc.), seamlessly and artfully captures the great author's personality, experience, times, and fictions, even his style—precise, rich, varied, subtle. The story is familiar, fictionalized by Dickens himself: the deprived, overworked child; the industrious youth learning shorthand, law, journalism; the young man, age 21, starting his literary career and his family (a wife unsuited to domestic duties, which he performed himself; ten children to support, along with improvident relatives); travels to America, public readings, a romance with Ellen Ternan, the dissolution of his marriage, acclaim as the "chronicler of his age." Moving easily between life and art, Ackroyd shows how Dickens invented as much as reflected that age: literal and symbolic projections of his own inner needs, dreams, nightmares coincided with the equally secret, repressed, and frightening fantasies of his public. He derived wealth, power, and fame from depicting a world populated by the helpless, impoverished, imprisoned, abandoned, disabled; by orphans, derelicts, eccentrics, criminals; by madness, violence, foul odors, mysterious events, and mindless systems all redeemed around a hearth by loving, patient, loyal friends and family, by sentiment, simplicity, generosity, and humor. Of himself, however, he required more: beset with a volatile temper, a restless nature that kept him prowling the streets, intense, methodical, overbearing, superstitious, lonely, anxious, he wrote to exorcise his own ghosts and to "engender" himself. Ackroyd is as comfortable and learned in contemporary literary theory as he is with the historical detail (updating Fred Kaplan's Dickens, 1988). Pushing the limits of biography, he interpolates imaginary chapters—Dickens entering one of his own novels, conversing with other authors, even with Ackroyd himself—dramatizing his flaws, rationalizations, and conviviality, fulfilling Dickens's ambition—to adapt a phrase from the autobiographical David Copperfield—to be at least the hero of his own life. A biographical triumph.
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