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by Jane Smiley

Pub Date: May 13th, 2002
ISBN: 0-670-03077-5
Publisher: Viking

Pulitzer-winning novelist Smiley (Horse Heaven, 2000, etc.) brings her fluid prose to a fresh and insightful look, through a psychological lens, at the life of Dickens.

True to the always-interesting Penguin Lives form, Smiley takes a leap over the usual approach to biography. Assuming her readers know that Dickens’s family was sent to debtors’ prison when he was a child and that he was humiliated about working in a blacking factory, the author makes her task revealing the man through his writing. She shows us Dickens the “self-made phenomenon”; a truly modern man, a public figure, an actor, and a manipulator. He’s 21 at the outset of this study, sitting in Westminster Abbey on the moment of his first published character sketch, revelling in a quiet, swelling pride. From here, she presents the man as he would have appeared to his contemporaries, weaving together the public presentation of Dickens via his journalism, novels, and letters, stitching up the occasional gap with reference to the more detailed biographies already published. She occasionally credits her reader with too much prior knowledge of the subject’s novels, but in general, she’s a generous guide. Smiley is a writer who knows and loves her craft; her exploration of Dickens’s writing process is clearly aimed at the lay reader and novel-writer alike. Along the way, she reveals his vast energy, his deep social conscience, his prefiguring of Freud, his strong business sense, and his failure to find true companionship. The account is a fast read, glazed with humor even at its most poignant.

A successful attempt to deepen the way we read Dickens, with clues to finding him in his own characters and words.