If an appointments committee existed to examine the CVs & references of potential biographers before selecting the best fitted for the task, theyIf an appointments committee existed to examine the CVs & references of potential biographers before selecting the best fitted for the task, they would have been hard-pressed not to have at least short-listed Ackroyd to write about Dickens. He is well qualified to undertake the task, being:-
• the author of other excellent biographies – particularly on Eliot, Blake & Thomas More • a novelist of some standing in his own right, and therefore with a considerable insight into the processes involved in developing his own extravagant plots & characters • like Dickens, a writer obsessed with London • like Dickens also, someone with experience of hack-work (witness, sadly, his more recent rash of biographies) and therefore with a good understanding of its nature & pressures
So, having passed the audition in retrospect – whew! I’ll bet that’s a relief to him – the biography is a splendid piece of work.
Incidentally, I hope they never appoint that committee. What literary committee would ever have selected a drunken, whoring short-arse (and Scotsman to boot) like Boswell to write his biography of Samuel Johnson, or appointed a militant leftie MP like Michael Foot (and a Plymothian/Plymouthian [?!] to boot) to write his excellent biography of Swift? I’m also sure that they would have been taken in by the seemingly glowing CV of A. N. Wilson, and appointed him to add to his ever growing list of hack-written biographies of everyone under the sun.
At his very best, Ackroyd is a chameleon writer of biographies; his style of writing adapts to and reflects the nature of his subject in a quite unique way. In “Dickens”, the biography takes on a novel-like quality, in the sense of having the qualities of a great novel. Dickens is revealed in all his complexity and ambiguity of character. In his narrative, Ackroyd returns again and again, to each of the themes he finds revealed in Dickens life and character, building the overall portrait in a spiral rather than a linear way. Each return to a theme adds to the understanding of, and the depth, and the contradictions, revealed in that aspect of Dickens the man.
As Ackroyd sums up his purpose in writing of Dickens:
“I never did like or dislike him. All I wanted to do was to understand him, which is quite a different thing. In that sense he is like a character in a novel I might write – I never dislike any of my characters I have created. I simply try to understand them and, in understanding them, to bring them to life.”
In order to achieve this, Ackroyd makes use of very thorough research, interpreting massive amounts of evidence and opinions from Dickens contemporaries . He uses all his sources carefully, sensitively and with great imaginative insight. At times he builds a composite picture from a number of sources, for instance in showing him as a public reader or a conversationalist. But he is not afraid to display the ambiguities and even frank contradictions in his evidence.
He avoids the trap that so many contemporary biographers leap into head-first, of drawing conclusions and then manipulating the evidence to back-up their conclusion. For instance, Ackroyd presented much evidence about the relationship between Ellen Ternan, very detailed evidence, but in the end he refuses to reach any solid conclusion of his own about it.
“I have a kind of complex about discovering everything there is to know, but this is probably because I realise just how much cannot be known, cannot be recovered.”
Halleluiah! - a biographer who is happy to remain inconclusive, and to admit the difficulties presented by the task – I admire him greatly for it. Too many enter the task with a determination to make new revelations about their subject, to produce some startling new facet of them or their lives. Often the evidence they use is either highly selective, or is not sufficient to support the conclusions reached. Perhaps the most absurd I’ve come across was in A. N. Wilson’s (sorry to return to that hobbyhorse of mine) biography of C S Lewis. Pulling out the old chestnut as to whether Lewis had a sexual relationship with Mrs Moore, he states that as there was no conclusive evidence either way, on balance one had to conclude that there had been one. What?! Am I missing something here? I don’t really care on which side his conclusions had fallen if he had presented, like Ackroyd, detailed evidence. But that’s just plain bad biography, and thankfully “Dickens” is written by too good a biographer to fall into such a lazy trap.
As would be expected from a novelist writing about a novelist, he produces great insights into how Dickens writing & life link together:
“Dickens fiction is not some separate entity, to be extracted from his life and other works, but rather part of the fabric of his existence as he makes his way through the world.”
However, he is also aware of the dangers in trying to draw too clear a set of links between details of Dickens life and of his fiction. Early in the book he warns against the simplistic idea of making his father = Micawber and his mother = Mrs Nickleby. He shows the parallels, but spends much time showing the complexities of the parents, and of Dickens relationships with them.
I liked the way he showed interesting links between Dickens own personality and his characters:
“In monsters like these [Pecksniff & Scrooge] he was caricaturing certain aspects of his temperament, that is why there is always that particle of affection which springs from self-love, and it is precisely that affection which makes these characters so vividly alive.”
In his summing up, he gets closest to the nub of how Dickens fiction interweaves with Dickens the man and Dickens the writer:
“When his fiction is surveyed in all its paradoxes, its inconsistencies and its complexities, it ought also to be emphasised that such ambivalences are not resolved because, given the nature of the man and of the writer, they could never be resolved. His books are in that sense as incomplete and as contradictory as his own self, as any human being.”
I loved the brief commentary he provided on each book, especially that on “Bleak House”.
“Everything is touching everything else. The city is the fog covered sphere which Dickens revolves in his hand, trying to peer into the centre where past and future are gathered.”
This beautifully encapsulates something of the nature of that novel. It’s interesting that it also might also be said of some of Ackroyd’s own novels, especially “The House of Doctor Dee”. In fact, taking out the name Dickens, it might have come from one of his own novels.
This was one of the most satisfying biographies I’ve ever read, and one I will dip into on many occasions in the future.
I could share a whole set of favourite quotes from the book, but just one that made me smile a number of times as it’s come to mind:
“It is characteristic of Dickens who, when he grasps the wrong end of the stick, never fails to belabour everyone in sight with it.” ...more
Wow! Only reached end of chapter 3 - how dare decorating get in the way! Riveting stuff so far. Often find this isn't the case with the subjects earlyWow! Only reached end of chapter 3 - how dare decorating get in the way! Riveting stuff so far. Often find this isn't the case with the subjects early years in biographies, but this is excellent.
Brilliant biography. She was able to present Hardy's complex relationships in a sufficiently detailed and rounded way, and never with those irritatingly manufactured controvesies that so many writers of biography seem to feel the need to manufacture or to add fuel to e.g. the delightful A. N. Wilson.
Her literary assessments of the novels and poems were well balanced and very fair.
On top of all that it was a fantastically readable book. ...more
Excellent source of detailed knowledge about Sassoon's early life which I very much enjoyed reading. The one drawback was her commentary on the poems.Excellent source of detailed knowledge about Sassoon's early life which I very much enjoyed reading. The one drawback was her commentary on the poems. I found some of these stilted and with little to say....more
I began enjoying the book, but gave up on it halfway through. It was too gossipy, and produced a caricature of the man. Listening to excerpts of interI began enjoying the book, but gave up on it halfway through. It was too gossipy, and produced a caricature of the man. Listening to excerpts of interviews with Thomas, he was certainly an eccentric. But he had an underlying awareness of just what he did, and presented as someone with a powerful sense of humour. This didn't come accross anything like strongly enough in the book, which just became irritating....more