DICKENS: A Life by Norman & Jeanne MacKenzie MacKenzie


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The MacKenzies (The Fabians, H. G. Wells) were inspired to produce a new biography of the much-biographied Boz by the ""fresh material"" that appeared between 1965 and 1977 in the Pilgrim Edition of the Dickens letters; and it is possible that those letters might in fact give rise to a Dickens study that says something that hasn't been said before and better. This drab, directionless book, however, uses the heavily quoted letters merely to fill opt a literate but second-hand and secondrate biography. ""Charles undoubtedly grew up with feelings of emotional uncertainty and a sense of neglect,"" write the MacKenzies, for instance--reducing the eloquent explorations of such as Edgar Johnson and Edmund Wilson to flat banalities. Wishy-washy and derivative when turning (erratically) to the touchstones of Dickens' conflict-ridden life, the authors are pedantically flavorless when faced with the work itself: ""Dickens had a gift for involving his readers in the emotions of a story, whether they were humour, pathos, or tragedy. . .""; and the perfunctory discussions of the individual novels are at best simplistic. Only in the area of politics do the MacKenzies apply a little energy, tracing Dickens' ""radicalism"" through some of the books (especially A Christmas Carol) and finding him rather lacking in that regard--a ""moralist"" instead of an activist. But no thesis is developed consistently, with a disproportionate emphasis instead on the details of Dickens' U.S. tours, his business dealings, and his moonlighting in amateur theatricals and those fatal, profitable staged readings. ""Genius always pays for the gift"" is the MacKenzies' epigraph for this study, but they seem neither to admire the genius nor to empathize with how Dickens had to pay for it. Edgar Johnson does both, and now that Iris masterwork is available in a one volume edition (1977), serious students can avoid academic missteps like this one; and casual readers can always turn to one of the lively popular biographies, like Wolf Mankowitz' Dickens of London (1977).

Pub Date: June 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press