Author: Jane Smiley
Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Literary Criticism / Writers on Writers / 19th century / UK)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (11/29/2011)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did, very easily!
One-sentence summary: An easy, welcoming intro to the life and times of Charles Dickens.
Do I like the cover?: Adore it. How quintessentially Victorian is it?!
First line: The literary sensibility of Charles Dickens is possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- very readable, lovely size (easy to hold), and fascinating.
Why did I get this book?: I like Jane Smiley, I like the Victorians, and I've always been curious about Dickens.
Review: 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. But as with the Edna O'Brien bio on Joyce, I love writers on writers. Where O'Brien's take was boisterous, rowdy, emulating Joyce's style, Smiley's is a more traditional biography, although not entirely chronologically. She hits on the themes of Dickens life -- family, social critique, celebrity -- and offers background for readers about his works.
I enjoyed this read -- it was quick, very easy to get in to, and enlightening without being overwhelming. As with most biographies, learning more about authors is a mixed bag for me: I love reading about other lives, and I especially enjoy learning about the creative process, but I do hate learning less savory details about historical figures I might like. In this, Smiley is remarkably (maddeningly, I found) even-handed, acknowledging Dickens' wife's depression while still honoring Dickens' unhappiness with his wife. As with the Joyce biography, I was more interested in the women of Dickens' life, but this slender volume is not the place for it.
As a starting place for anyone interested in Charles Dickens and his works, I highly recommend this book. Smiley suggests her own reading order for anyone starting with Dickens, and provides brief context and commentary on his major works to springboard the curious reader into their own Dickens studies.