Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley

Dedicated readers of this site know that I am a big fan of the Penguin Lives series. These succinct – usually under 20 pages – but lively biographies written by famous authors from a variety of fields provide a great introduction to their respective subjects. They are also a lot easier to carry around than the massive tomes that seem the staple of academic biography. In her take on Charles Dickens Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and dedicated letter writer, Jane Smiley fulfills the promise of this series by illuminating the life, work, and impact of this great literary figure in a mere 207 pages. Smiley situates Dickens in his time, connects him to contemporary writers, provides insights into his work, and even provides some thought provoking opinions about writing. She accomplishes all of this with a light touch and flair for cultural commentary.

In taking on Charles Dickens Smiley has a daunting challenge. As she notes in the introduction, Dickens’ “literary sensibility” is perhaps the “most amply documented literary sensibility in the world.” Dickens prodigious output – fifteen novels, ten of which were 800 pages or more, not to mention untold articles, stories, plays, etc. – and public life made him a true celebrity before the age of celebrity. In this way, Smiley views Dickens as a sort of precursor or bridge to modernity. In the way he chose to live his life, in the subjects he dealt with, and in way the public reacted to him Smiley shows Dickens to be a subject modern readers can relate to.

Given the short nature of this work I won’t bother summarizing Dickens’ life, but I wanted to point out a few areas where Smiley delivers the promise of this form (the short biographical sketch). The first area where Smiley succeeds is in the way she tackles the psychological connection between Dickens’ life and his writing. There is a temptation to dive too deep into a sort of psychological biography that attempts to put Dickens on the couch, so to speak, and speculate about the personal connections between him and his fictional characters. While providing some insight, when taken too far, these type of works provide too much speculation and not enough biography. Smiley, however, has a light touch in this matter. While discussing how Dickens’ life and thinking influenced his writing, and how his writing circled back and influenced his life, Smiley never forgets to discuss the novels as works of literature; as fundamentally creative acts not thinly veiled autobiography. For example, Dickens marriage and his relationships with women is a crucial thread in his life and Smiley wisely explores how his female characters reflect his conception of an ideal companion, the role of women, and the experience of family life in English society. But she also approaches and judges the novels on their literary merit; observing the characters as characters not simply as biographical clues.

Smiley convincingly weaves biographical, literary, and psychological insights together to present Dickens as a person living in a particular time and place but also as a writer and thinker. Here is a passage that illuminates her approach:

The lives of novelists, and actors, too, are marked by bouts of emotion and changes of circumstances – love affairs, divorces, outbursts of all kinds – that supposedly contrast with the lives of citizens with more traditional employments. This flux is conventionally seen as evidence of instability on the part of artists and ascribed to the wounds of childhood, or artistic temperament, or selfishness. But the true pattern, I think, is evident in Dickens’ relationship to his work and is most evident from the inception of David Copperfield, in 1849, to the end of his life. Every novelist brings some knowledge of the dramatic states of mind to his writing. If he or she had no such knowledge, then he or she would have no business with, and no interest in, novels or drama, since both rely on the depiction of those states for narrative or dramatic interest. Audiences and readers want something to happen, and writers are ready to portray some of the things that can happen. Often this knowledge does have its root in the experience of the artist, though as frequently it has its origins in sensitive and eager observation (both of these were certainly true of Dickens). But the experience of writing about and depicting these dramatic incidents is at least as important as their origins, because the novelist bodies them forth, comments upon them, reacts to them; he learns for them and gives them both form and meaning, rather like, in a simpler way, expressing words in anger sometimes relives feelings and sometimes exacerbates them. What might have remained inchoate becomes specific through making a narrative of it in a way that is analogous to psychotherapy. The novelist, unlike the patient, defines his story as fiction and therefore retains at least some distance from it, but he nevertheless learns to interpret it.

As this passage illustrates, Smiley brings unique insights and opinions about what it means to be a novelist and she uses these tools to help us understand Dickens better. Even if you disagree with Smiley on some of these issues they are sure to be thought provoking.

The second strong point of this work is its succinct discussion of Dickens work. I have read very little Dickens and yet I enjoyed Smiley’s description of, and judgment on, Dickens many novels. Obviously the more of Dickens’ work one has read the greater the ability to judge Smiley’s overviews and appreciate her insights. But one need not be a Dickens scholar to understand and appreciate her summaries and judgments.

Overall, Smiley provides a fascinating and very readable introduction to Charles Dickens’ life and work. She does this without getting bogged down in biographical minutia, psychological speculation, or academic debates. Instead she helps us understand Dickens as a person and a writer while at the same time placing him in context of his time and connecting him to ours. As I noted above, this slim but intelligent volume really fulfills the promise of the Penguin Lives Series and reveals Jane Smiley to be a talented and insightful writer in her own right. Anyone with an interest in Charles Dickens, 19th Century English letters, or what it means to be a writer would do well to check out this handy volume.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).