The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Harper. Aug. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9780062954947. $32.50. LIT
What makes a writer great? In the case of Charles Dickens (1812–70), posits biographer novelist Wilson (Victoria: A Life), it’s a man crying inside but trying to hide it. Don’t look to Dickens's public statements. He hides himself there. Look instead to the fiction where young Dickens and his feckless parents are transmogrified into some of the best-fleshed characters in English literature. Dickens’s books tell of children desperate for love and not receiving it, cast out on the nightmare scape of industrial London. Ten of 15 novels (Little Dorrit is one) involve prisons; almost all unfold horror stories of marital misery and abused or neglected youth. Wilson presents his analysis as a set of mysteries: for example, coins were missing in Dickens's pocket when he took ill and died; how did his childhood affect his life and writing; how could he be so cruel a husband himself. Ultimately, Wilson argues that the memory of Dickens’s own childhood trauma lifted the writer above the status of comic to tragic author.
VERDICT Wilson is the perfect choice to write about this complicated soul, showing how reading Dickens, one emerges with a new appreciation of the people one encounters. Even 150 years after his death, Dickens’s life and works continue to fascinate.
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