Restless, tireless, and prolific, Dickens “became an adjective in his own lifetime.”
As part of Oxford’s informative Introduction series, Hartley (English/Univ. of Roehampton; Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, 2008, etc.), scholar in residence at the Charles Dickens Museum, offers a brisk, acutely perceptive overview of the British writer’s life, work, and legacy. Her distillation of Dickens’ biography touches on familiar points: the lonely, poverty-stricken childhood; a brief, adolescent romance; marriage and the birth of 10 children; his affair with actress Ellen Ternan; his long career as a journalist and editor; and his catapult to fame, at the age of 24, with the serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Besides creating biographical context, Hartley sharply examines the themes that engaged Dickens throughout his career, dominated by “his critique of the dehumanizing structures, ideologies, and bureaucracies of nineteenth-century Britain.” Because of his fame, Dickens was a sought-after speaker “in support of good causes,” which included sanitary reforms, the establishment of schools for poor children, and the improvement of conditions in workhouses and debtors prisons, something he recalled, darkly, from personal experience. He could be dismissive and cynical about those in power: “My faith in the people governing, is on the whole, infinitesimal,” he once declared. He was, said George Orwell, “certainly a subversive writer,” and Hartley calls him “a life-long radical.” She judiciously extracts passages from Dickens’ major writings—David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and the much-loved A Christmas Carol, to name a few—to exemplify the author’s characterizations, plots, and style. His use of cliffhanger chapter endings, Hartley writes, was a strategy necessary in serial publication, which “builds waiting and suspense into the meaning of the novel and makes them a crucial part of the reading experience.” Just as the term “Dickensian” has entered the English language, the novels have endured in popularity throughout the decades.
A deft, authoritative, and engaging reappraisal of the great Victorian novelist.