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Book Review: "Charles Dickens," by Jane Smiley (Newsday)

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CHARLES DICKENS, by Jane Smiley. Lipper/Viking, 212 pp., $19.95.

By Emily Gordon

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY of Dickens! It seems no less a task than wrestling an elephant into a thimble. Yet the Penguin Lives series has summoned such a biography to life, and chosen for the elephant-wrangling an accomplished and prolific novelist of our time, Jane Smiley. Smiley’s own books are Dickensian in scale and scope; novels such as “A Thousand Acres,” “Moo” and the recent “Horse Heaven” are epics of intertwining characters, grand themes, comedy and tragedy. Surely, she’s the ideal writer to capture Dickens’ multiple personas and quintessential modernity, as well as the grand scale of his personal and professional lives.

At first, however, it doesn’t feel that way. In her novels, Smiley has plenty of room to let her characters stretch and shift; here, she’s confined to a truncated style that takes some getting used to. Dickens wrote, as Smiley notes in her preface, “15 novels, 10 of which were 800 or more pages long … numerous stories, articles, travel pieces, essays, letters, editorial notes and plays.” He was also a newspaper editor, journalist, traveler, political reformer and actor, and fathered 10 children. How can an expansive novelist get this gargantuan figure into the slim Penguin Lives format? (The series, which assigns prominent writers to famous subjects, already has covered figures from Joan of Arc to Marcel Proust to Andy Warhol.) Smiley solves the problem by writing in an extremely compressed style whose density sometimes recalls, well, a Victorian novel.

But if “Charles Dickens” first seems to be a dark and narrow tunnel that one must crawl through on hands and knees, it opens up into a green meadow that readers will be glad to explore. As familiar personalities and recognizable patterns emerge from Dickens’ life, Smiley’s careful eye and intuitive brain weave them together. Smiley’s mind, like Dickens’, is a mighty compendium of facts and ideas, and it is her triumph that she is able to turn a life that was and is — as she observes — relentlessly documented into a kind of literary fireside chat, a dense and yet somehow personal conversation.

Her approach is not to write a conventional biography that starts with the novelist’s birth and ends at his death. Instead, as she explains, her intent is “to evoke Dickens as he might have seemed to his contemporary audience, to friends and relatives, to intimate acquaintances, to himself, filling in the background only as he became willing to address it in his work.” So we begin the book when Dickens is 21, the author of a sketch in a monthly magazine and high on his newest accomplishment. Smiley moves swiftly through his life from there on, chronicling each stage of his public career and inner life while rounding them out with anecdotes, parallel stories, supplementary texts and hindsight.

To this end, she leaves almost no subject untouched: Dickens’ work habits (and the effect on his fiction of writing in installments, some of which sold better than others), his marriage, his political views, his travels, his fantasy life, his finances and place in the class structure, his psychology, his spirituality, his friendships, his childhood and children, and the social and intellectual movements of his time (especially the upheavals in English literature that Dickens himself sparked in part). As each of Dickens’ novels is published, Smiley leaves her narrative to present the book to us. These critiques are telegraphically brief, which may be frustrating for those who haven’t read the books recently and would prefer fuller synopses, but Smiley makes it clear how each novel’s driving theme and circus of characters tie into Dickens’ life as a whole. Being a novelist herself, she has great feeling for what a writer is capable of at different stages of his or her career, and consistently puts Dickens’ novels in the context of what readers want and need in the 21st century, as well as what they demanded in his own time.

She’s also a sympathetic biographer, which is a good thing in this case. Dickens is easy to like most of the time, but he held a number of political views that will sit badly with many contemporary readers. He also had serious personal failings — most notably in his relationship with his wife, Catherine. Dickens had the gift of almost inexhaustible energy (Smiley also characterizes it as restlessness), which allowed him to, for instance, walk as many as 30 miles each day through the streets of London (which was for him an inspirational “magic lantern”); travel twice through the United States on reading tours; visit the kinds of places — orphanages, the poorest schools, prisons and factories - that he later wrote about in minute detail; edit newspapers; do physically draining performances of his work and act in amateur theatricals. He thrived on incessant activity, even when he felt unwell or simply had too much on his plate. Catherine, alas, did not share his zest and was indeed frequently depressed — perhaps, as Smiley notes, because of the 10 children she bore and the nine she raised (one, whom Dickens named after a character he would shortly kill off in “David Copperfield,” died in infancy).

The two eventually divorced, and Dickens was so unpleasant in the process that a number of his closest friends (including William Makepeace Thackeray) stopped seeing him, having sided with the long-suffering Catherine. To some extent, this ostracization worked to Dickens’ advantage, since he conducted a second, secret life after his divorce, in what was probably an affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. (The evidence is scant because the letters between them have been lost or destroyed, but Smiley is sufficiently convinced by the documentation of, among other biographers, Claire Tomalin.) This is not an altogether attractive side of the novelist, but Smiley deftly uses even the most disquieting facts to highlight how much Dickens’ experiences anticipated the modern divorce culture. Smiley uses this device often, making a natural segue from some aspect of Dickens’ life or work to the quandaries facing any novelist, past or present — or indeed, anyone trying to balance creative enterprise with private responsibilities.

Though Smiley is unembarrassed to acknowledge her own — and the reader’s — interest in Dickens’ romantic life, it is, of course, only a part of his remarkable story. As they piece together his life from Smiley’s thoughtful, conversational collage, readers will be struck by his triumph over nearly every obstacle, as well as his sheer stamina. Like many of his child-heroes, the young Dickens was a cog in the cruel machinery of adults’ money-driven world - at 12, he was forced to work in the front window of a shoe-blacking factory while the rest of his family was in debtor’s prison — but emerged capable of translating that experience into art that both transported readers and challenged their social and political views. By the end of “Charles Dickens,” having traveled through his life with him, we feel we know Dickens personally. Smiley’s biography will serve as the history of both a singular character and an entire era for those new to Dickens, and illuminate the author further for those already steeped in his work. A longer, more languorous study, such as Angus Wilson’s illustrated “The World of Charles Dickens” (out of print but available from used-book sellers), would make a perfect companion to this Penguin Life, but it stands on its own as an acrobatic — and also deeply satisfying — achievement.

First published in Newsday on April 28, 2002

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