Review

Charles Dickens

by Michael Slater

Charles Dickens is one of those towering figures who needs a new
biography every few years. He was a many-sided man, a kind of
living literary institution in his own right. Scholars are still
having a hard time pinning him down as the 200th anniversary of his
birth looms in 2012.

British Dickens expert Michael Slater has produced a massively
researched and closely reasoned appraisal of Dickens that presents
him through the lens of his own words --- not only his 16
magnificent novels but the flood of short stories, magazine pieces,
journalism, letters and speeches that poured unceasingly from his
quill pen.

First of all, the book is a marvel of scholarly research. Slater
has examined almost everything Dickens wrote and exposed
connections that reflect Dickens’s use and reuse of ideas,
experiences and images in different settings throughout his whole
body of work. It will be a revelation to those who know Dickens
only through the novels. Slater has gone out of his way to relate
those novels to lesser-known pieces and to plead the case for the
centrality of those shorter pieces to any adequate assessment of
the man and his life.

At the same time, the book takes full notice of all the central
themes of the Dickens story: his passionate advocacy of relief for
the poor, his disdain for most of the political institutions of his
day, his concept of literature as a great and noble calling that
requires hard work of anyone who wants to practice it, his colorful
and turbulent personal life, and his passion for travel, or rather
for what Slater calls “socially investigative
sightseeing” --- visits to prisons, poorhouses and asylums
that were not in the tourist guidebooks.

Dickens’s concern for the poor led him to aim what he
called “sledgehammer blows” at politicians or fatuous
clergymen who ignored the problems he saw festering in the streets
of London during the long nighttime walks he loved to take. It is
no accident that in his novels very few if any lawyers or clergymen
come off favorably.

Dickens was a control freak whose zeal for having things his way
extended to criticism of the facial expressions in the
illustrations for his books. In describing his famous involvement
in elaborate amateur theatrical productions, Slater says again and
again that Dickens was not happy unless he could control every
detail of the show: casting, scenery, costumes, lighting, stage
direction --- in short, the whole affair. Slater demonstrates that
he was an obsessive organizer, a “born master of
ceremonies.”

Another major theme is Dickens’s enormous capacity for
work. He would be grinding out a major novel, editing a magazine,
organizing a play production, and supervising the operation of a
famous home for wayward girls --- all pretty much at the same time.
In his early years, the writing of two novels would be going on at
the same time --- he would finish up the last serial installments
of one while getting started on the next and at the same time
carrying on a volume of correspondence that he compared to that of
“a secretary of state.” Even his leisure hours were, in
Slater’s word, “strenuous.”

Slater generally reserves his own critical judgments for the
novels and stories. He is, however, candid (and critical) on
Dickens’s separation from his wife and on his late-in-life
affair with actress Ellen Ternan. One major theme that he pretty
much neglects is Dickens’s shameful campaign to isolate his
nine children from their mother after the separation. He concludes
that no one can know for certain if Dickens and Ternan were
sexually involved, and on the literary front he resists the
temptation to offer a theory on how the unfinished THE MYSTERY OF
EDWIN DROOD would conclude if its author had lived to tell us.

This book is the best overall treatment of the Charles Dickens
phenomenon since Edgar Johnson’s two-volume effort in the
1950s. Slater has taken full advantage of new Dickens material that
has come to light since Johnson’s day and produced a
masterpiece.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 26, 2010

Charles Dickens
by Michael Slater

  • Publication Date: November 10, 2009
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • ISBN-10: 0300112076
  • ISBN-13: 9780300112078