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The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated Edition

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A biograpohy by John Forster
1 review about The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated...

Larger than life

  • Feb 6, 2014
But maybe not larger than this book.  The title of my review is the tag line on the back cover of this one volume 500-page abridged edition on oversized pages printed on thick glossy paper, referring to its subject but also applicable to this book (ISBN 978-1-4027-7285-6; I found it in the bargain section at Barnes and Noble).  It is large and hard to hold to read, and you won't want to take it on your next plane trip.

Forster was a long time friend and the first biographer of Dickens, close enough to be named as recipient of his manuscripts, copyrights, and some personal effects in Dickens's will printed here as an appendix.

This quote from p. 211-212 is indicative of much of Forster's biography

"Ah," he said to me, "when I saw those places, how I thought that to leave one's hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves, and stand upon a giant's staircase that Sampson couldn't overthrow!"

  • It is adoring, never critical, and also commissioned by Dickens before his death, so what else is to be expected?  He never mentions Dickens's long time mistress Ellen Ternan, dismisses out of hand and on his evidence alone rumors of an affair with his wife's sister, and passes over Dickens's rude and demeaning public separation from his wife with no comment beyond bare reporting of the event.
  • It is written passed very largely on Dickens's letters to Forster.  This makes Forster nearly a primary source but it also makes it feel as if we are seeing Dickens through a very small pinhole.
  • Forster is almost always on the page or just off the margin.  One contemporary review referred to the biography as "The autobiography of John Forster with recollections of Charles Dickens."

These are both strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses leaving especially this edition (with its quotes from contemporaries, quotes from Dickens's writings, pictures of people and scenes from his life, and sidebars on people, places, and literary criticism) to be read more as history than as biography.

While Dickens had surely started life as one of the "toiling people" he so pities here, he had since risen far above and was writing these words from a year long sojourn in Italy with stays in fabulous villas and terrace homes far from the dark streets and dank hovels of London he had known and would always write about.  He would also remember that impoverished beginning, perhaps subconsciously, certainly to his detriment, for it was at least (but only) partially his fear of financial ruin that drove him to his physically exhausting reading tours that weakened his healthy and pointed him to an early death.

All these things make Dickens endlessly fascinating, and Forster a worthy addition, especially in this edition, to the Dickens fan's library.  Quoting yet again from a letter from Dickens:  "I think it is my infirmity to fancy or perceive relations in things which are not apparent generally."--which Forster defines as "one of those exquisite properties of humor by which are discovered . . . the level of a common humanity.". It is also a very near paraphrase of the purpose of The catholic reader, the collection of my book reviews you are reading now.

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February 08, 2014
Charles Dickens was a true master.
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