A brilliantly balanced, major critical biography of England's greatest and most popular novelist. Drawing on new material, including Dickens' unpublished letters, Kaplan (Thomas Caryle: A Biography, 1983) masterfully recounts the life of the literary genius who was far more fascinating, dark, and complex than his adoring public was ever led to believe. The facts of Dickens' life are well documented, but Kaplan manages to make them seem fresh and arresting. He begins by detailing Dickens' childhood, marred by his father's improvidence and imprisonment for debt and by Dickens' being forced to work in a blacking (shoe polish) factory, for which he never forgave his mother. Kaplan goes on to recount Dickens' ambivalent relationship with Catherine Hogarth, mother of his ten children, whom he cruelly rejected after 16 years of married life; his secret liaison with the very young and beautiful actress Ellen Ternan; and his attachment to his wife's sisters, Mary and Georgina, who, in contrast to the prosaic and always pregnant Catherine, became idealized in his mind into what Kaplan calls ""the loyal, loving slim sister wives."" As Kaplan makes clear, Dickens' optimism and aura of Victorian respectability were often at odds with his restlessness and craving for romantic fulfillment, psychological conflicts that he often explored in his fiction. A highly readable and enjoyable primer for a new generation of Dickensians; required reading also for those familiar with the twists and turns of the master's life and art.