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Charles Dickens

(Penguin Lives)

by
3.82  ·  Rating details ·  604 ratings  ·  98 reviews
With the delectable wit, unforgettable characters, and challenging themes that have won her a Pulitzer Prize and national bestseller status, Jane Smiley naturally finds a kindred spirit in the author of classics such as Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. As "his novels shaped his life as much as his life shaped his novels," Smiley's Charles Dickens is at once a ...more
Hardcover, Penguin Lives series, 224 pages
Published May 13th 2002 by Viking (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.82  · 
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Teresa
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
4.75

I initially dismissed this book due to its slim size, thinking it couldn’t possibly hold anything new for me and that certainly it must be a potted biography (a great phrase I’ve seen my British friends use). But then remembering how I’d enjoyed Carol Shields’ take on Jane Austen in the same Penguin Lives series (and also realizing how nice the book would look on my shelf, sans dust cover), I ordered a copy. As with Shield’s Jane Austen, a fellow novelist has insights a biographer likely
...more
Gary Anderson
Mar 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
Penguin Lives was a high-quality series of short biographies written by well-known authors who had some common ground with their subjects. I enjoyed Bobbie Ann Mason’s Elvis Presley and Tom Wicker’s George Herbert Walker Bush. Novelist Jane Smiley’s treatment of Charles Dickens is another excellent installment in the series. Although the Penguin Lives series is no longer being published, this book is still in print from Penguin in slightly different form under the title Charles Dickens: A Life.

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Ms.pegasus
Mar 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who teaches or reads 19th century literature
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: my experience in a continuing education class on David Copperfield
Author Jane Smiley offers brevity and astute analysis in this biography of Charles Dickens from the Penguin Lives series. Its brevity (212 pages) will relieve apprehensive readers familiar with Dickens's hefty novels (DAVID COPPERFIELD runs over 800 pages). Her analysis is even more welcome. It pairs themes in his books with concurrent events in his life. What emerges is a conflicted man whose contradictions are not easily reconciled.

Smiley is critical of the lax usage of the adjective “
...more
Dana
Jun 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book has no footnotes. It's only 200 pages long. If you read it in bed and nod off, it won't kill you when it falls on your chest (unlike, say, Bleak House). It reads like an informal conversation with a very smart and well-read friend whose judgment you trust.

I was ripe for this biography after Masterpiece's Tales of Charles Dickens series. I loved watching Little Dorrit, but I felt I understood it better after reading Jane Smiley's analysis of the women in Dickens' life: his resentment
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Janice
May 11, 2011 rated it did not like it
I like the idea of a novelist telling the life of another novelist chiefly using his novels, but I think I might need to read another biography in addition to this one, since I'm missing some of the document-based evidence and historical grounding of a more traditional biography. Also, I get irritated by statements of "fact," such as, "the novel is first and foremost about how individuals fit, or don't fit, into their social worlds," a hopelessly reductive premise that I doubt a more ...more
Ginny
Feb 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am not a fan of biography in general, but I especially tend to avoid biographies of writers (or other artists). I think a work of art should stand (or fall) on its own, regardless of the difficulties in the life of the artist. This little book is a literary biography--more about the novels than gossip about the writer--and suits me very well. A quote from the introduction:
"His novels shaped his life as much as his life shaped his novels, and just as his novels were in part commentary on his
...more
Darcy
Feb 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Several years ago, when I took a course entirely devoted to Dickens, I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he had died about 30 years sooner, just to spare me from any more of his writing. My opinion on this has changed, of course, but such are the feelings that his inexhaustible tome of works inspires in students.

At a little over 200 pages, Smiley’s biography of Dickens is shorter than all of Dickens’ novels, even the unfinished Edwin Drood. Dickens, who led such a prolific and
...more
Jen's Book Den
Dec 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Without having read anything by author Jane Smiley in the past, I was pleasantly impressed by the eloquence of this Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing style. Smiley easily draws the reader into the life and times of Charles Dickens, and allows the reader to not only get know the man, but also the inner workings of what inspired and influenced some of the greatest novel writing in history.

Among some of things brought to my attention by Smiley was the fact that Oliver Twist “was the first English
...more
Audra (Unabridged Chick)
Terrible confession: I hate Dickens. At least, I think I do; I'm not sure I've ever read him, other than A Christmas Carol, and to be honest, I'm not even sure I've read it. (I've certainly seen enough adaptations to think I have!) Of all the Victorian authors in the world, he appeals to me the least. I know, I'm a godless heathen for saying so. I hope to rectify this someday and read something of his, but other books jostle to the top of the list.

All this is to say I know little about Dickens.
...more
Mary Lou
May 21, 2016 rated it liked it
An odd little book. While many biographies set out to tell the private life behind the public persona, Smiley, instead, attempts to do a psychological analysis on Dickens based on what we know of his private life in conjunction with what he was writing at any given time. The book is light on biographical detail, mentioning in passing people who surely played large roles in Dickens's life, and to whom other, more traditional biographers, would have surely devoted more time. But, if you've read ...more
Julie
Dec 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this biography of Dickens by author Jane Smiley (whom I met once when I was in college. Neato.). I appreciated how Smiley's own insights as a novelist informed her commentary of his life, his personal writings, and his creative works. Her portrayal was thoughtful, balanced, generous, yet discerning. Dickens is a fascinating subject, and Smiley capably diagrams the scope of his impact on literature, on Victorian society and politics, on the novel, and on the profession of author. ...more
John
Sep 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've read several biographies of Dickens over the year. This one is my favorite. Jane Smiley is a novelist who takes a look at the life through the works. The idea behind this book and the series it is a part of, is essentially an "appreciation" of Dickens' works. Although the books covers the main biographical details of the life, what has been covered by other books, it looks individually at all the works. It is, in some respects, a critical study of Dickens, but more for the average Dickens ...more
Peter
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I found this to be an extremely readable and insightful biography. Smiley does frequently refer to Peter Ackroyd’s massive biography of Dickens but do not make the mistake and think her biography is a shadow of Ackroyd.

Jane Smiley is a highly respected novelist herself and her biography of Dickens very often focusses itself through the eyes of a fellow novelist. Thus, the reader is granted a different set of eyes than the often wonderful but somewhat less creative and imaginative lens of an
...more
Peter Tillman
Jun 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I didn't think I had any great interest in Charles Dickens (1812-1870), but novelist Jane Smiley's brief biography is pretty much irresistible. She interprets Dicken's life and work with a novelist's eye, and presents him as a Victorian superstar: indeed, his life and work prefigures 20th-century celebrities pretty closely. Smiley thinks Dickens and Shakespeare are the high points of English literature so far. Well, maybe so, but I don't think I'll be rushing on to reading Dickens' works....

The
...more
Helen
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
I found this look at the life and work of the iconic English novelist fascinating. I haven't read all of Dickens's books, so some of the discussion of his work was beyond me, but I appreciated knowing more about the character and personal life of the man who has so greatly influenced literature.
Vicki Cline
Jun 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: dickens
This is a very good and thorough biography of Dickens, considering that it's fairly short. I was hoping to read more about his childhood, but that part was pretty limited. He had quite an interesting life. The author has many good comments on his various works. I was a bit surprised that there was no index.
Marcie
Nov 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Chances are sometime in your life you've been introduced to Charles Dickens, weather it be from reading his novels or seeing his characters come to life on film and stage. One of his popular holiday books, A Christmas Carol is well known. I know I've watched on television quite a few film versions from the classic 1939 movie to The Muppets and to the 2009 remake. A Christmas Carol was the first novel I read by Charles Dickens. My seventh grade teacher tortured us with the complexity of Dickens. ...more
Joan
Jan 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
I thought this book was both though-provoking and enjoyable. I liked the structural concept of the book as showing parallel between what was happening in Dickens's novels and in his life, though I thought she ran out of steam at the end. As a writer herself, Jane Smiley's observations about the novel as a form and about Dickens's books in particular, were rich and insightful. She makes an interesting and I thought persuasive case that, although Dickens writes often about the challenges and ...more
Jane
Apr 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
A few years ago, on a rainy, damp February day straight out of Bleak House, I toured the Dickens Museum in London, housed in a home he occupied in his early years of marriage. A pedestal stand in one of the bedrooms contains an edition of All The Year Round, the periodical he founded, open to Dickens's essay condemning his wife as a poor mother, companion, and more. It's tough to read even today--the two other bedraggled tourists in the room and I had a lively discussion. How could a novelist ...more
Scott
Feb 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: victorian, lives, contexts
I learned that Dickens was a dandy, short, and very energetic. He typically walked twenty to thirty miles every day and still found the strength to write a dozen novels, edit magazines, give readings to huge audiences, travel, beget ten children, and carry on a shady relationship with an actress nearly half his age. Smiley's life of Dickens is a very quick, very informative read that leaves you feeling you know Dickens the celebrity as well as many of his contemporary neighbors would have. ...more
Dan Douglas
Jun 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Not a bad overview of Dickens' life & works. Best parts are re the books rather than that of Dickens' life--which, to me, focused too much on his private relationships via a kind of Freudian psychoanalysis that is pretty ho hum.

Recommend if you are curious about how Dickens' works evolved overtime & how he matured as an artist. Although I would probably first recommend Charles Dickens by G.K Chesterton.
Sarah
Feb 07, 2012 rated it liked it
I have mixed feelings about these "famous author on famous author" mini-biographies. On the one hand, it would be a privilege to spend an evening hearing Jane Smiley talk about Charles Dickens (or any number of subjects), so this is a fun substitute for that experience. On the other hand, my favorite biographies tend to be meatier and more obsessive ("Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay" or "Virginia Woolf" by Hermione Lee), and I can't help wishing sometimes that these mini-bios ...more
Nicholas
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Easy bio to read. Smiley framed her narrative around his stories and what was occurring in his life the whole time. If you want a more expansive bio full of every detail in his life, maybe look for something else, perhaps Ackroyd's.
Becky
Jan 18, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult
Only 3 stars because Smiley mistakenly says Charlotte Bronte died in childbirth.
Heather
Feb 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A celebrity before the days of celebrity, Charles Dickens was a genius and an enigma who created some of the most potent novels in history. Behind the scenes, Dickens was a man unlike any other, with strange beliefs, warring passions and an eclectic lifestyle. In this biography by famous author Jane Smiley, Dickens’ life and works are explored in great depth and with generous helpings of sympathy, interest and wonder. From his secrecy about his troubled childhood to his eventual marriage to a ...more
Matt
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For all the quirky dialogue and colorful characters, he was kind of a jerk. Compassionate to the orphan, not so much to his own wife. Smiley spends most of her time connecting the dots between his story characters and the contemporary situation of his personal life, and though the development of his literary maturity is well argued and covers the whole of his career, a few places seem like a stretch. Still, the mark of a truly great author is one that can distill his own story philosophies, ...more
Magdalena
There's a real art to writing a good biography. It takes great skill to choose how to remake the character you're writing about including how much external fact and internal perception you want to draw out, and how to contour the story of a entire life with all its tedium and complexity. Smiley does this beautifully in this relatively small biography of a great big man: Charles Dickens: A Life. Though many other biographies have been written of Dickens, Smiley's remains unique for a number of ...more
May
Aug 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
I wish it came with a spoiler alert, because it basically tells you the plot and conclusion of every single one of his books, which I’ve yet to cover all the way. I felt that her commentary was very subjective, even going so far as to give her opinion, “this is my favorite book”, and I felt like she was judging his life based on her view on the world, which to me is strange for a biography. Also, I felt like the paragraphs were quite long and would have used more breaks—minor, but I am just ...more
Matthew Huff
Dec 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Though there were a number of moments in this biography where I would have loved for Smiley to go further with the points she was making — merely because they were fascinating — I have no complaints with this rather compact look at Dickens and his work. She balances an insightful understanding of the man with an obvious familiarity and love for his body of work. This is an excellent and accessible biography.
Brian
Sep 27, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
Didn't learn as much as I'd hoped, but that was because the author was apparently quite secretive as his family grew and his marriage deteriorated. But interesting throughout, particularly regarding the ambition and character of his many one-man readings and performances, which were driven both by a need for money and a love of the stage.
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Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright
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“The novel is, above all, an intense experience of prolonged intimacy with another consciousness.” 1 likes
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