Charles Dickens is one of the best-loved English novelists.
But who was the man behind the novels?
And how did his turbulent personal life contribute to his literary genius?
By the age of twelve Dickens was separated from his family when his father was sent to debtors’ prison. He was sent to work in a boot blacking factory, and had to live and walk the London streets alone.
He never recovered from the emotional wounds of those years, and when he began to write stories of the poor in London he included especially poignant characterisations of children.
He worked hard to change the way society viewed and empathised with the poor, and yet, despite these displays of kindheartedness, he could be heartless in his personal life.
He had strained relationships with his children and showed very little sympathy towards his depressed and lonely wife.
He was full of compassion, yet could also be a mass of contradictions.
Charles Dickens by Karen Kenyon
Despite living and working near the Charles Dickens Museum in London for a couple of years, I never got there. The more I read about Dickens’ personal life, the harder I find it to separate the books from the man.
Dickens is famous for his work helping the poor, but what is not as commonly known is that he was selfish and often cruel when it came to the people he should have cared about the most, and held a rather disturbing obsession with teen girls and very young women his entire life.
Karen Kenyon’s Charles Dickens is a detailed biography that shows Dickens as a complex and extremely contradictory man. A man who grew up in poverty and worked his way up to one of England’s most famous men, performing readings for the Queen and touring America more than once. (I found the part about his copyright woes in the US interesting.)
It is hard to make sense of a man who was loved by the public, but who blamed his wife for having too many babies – babies he was indifferent to – before leaving her for a teenaged lover when he was middle-aged.
Charles’ and Catherine’s last child was born that year…
…At the time of his birth, Dickens, with his characteristically cold response to the birth of his children, said, ‘on the whole I could have dispensed with him.’
This was a man who refused even to send his estranged wife a note of condolence when one of their children died.
Victorian England is a fascinating place, with a great deal of misery in the poorer classes that provided Dickens with subjects for his work. I think that the atmosphere of the time was described well in this book.
There is so much known about Dickens’ life, as well as more revealed about his secret life with his mistress (after it came to light in the twentieth century), that any biography is going to be heavy on the information. There is a lot of life to cover in detail, even considering he burnt two decades of his correspondence, and that there’re many unanswered questions about his thirteen-year affair.
I don’t think there was any way to present the man’s life than how it was done in this book, even if at times it was perhaps TOO fast with the facts to the point parts felt like a long list of dot points put in sentences.
Additionally, the copy I read had quite a few editing mistakes (and oddly switched back and forth between US and British English), but that was a minor issue.
It is hard to present both sides of such a complicated man – the good public one and the often cruel private one – with balance, but I think it was achieved.
Though this is a story of a man’s life, I think it is as much a story of how limited women’s options were in the nineteenth century.
I do wonder how a man with so much compassion for others could care so little about the most important people in his life.
This affair brought out all that was worst, all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.
One of Dickens’ daughters.
Overall, and despite my inability to get over my anger with a man who has been dead a long time(!), it was an interesting read.
Review copy provided by NetGalley.