Charles Dickens is a biography particularly well suited to the young adult reader because of its author’s awareness of the value of pictures to bring into focus for a modern reader a world long gone and people long dead. Names on the page become living, breathing personalities when their portraits appear above their stories. Victorian London parallels the modern city in a picture of a jammed London Bridge, its traffic consisting of horses and pedestrians rather than cars and buses. Priestley integrates the visual and the textual by placing pictures in context, with the photograph appearing at the top of the page explaining or illuminating the material below.
For example, Dickens was a small but dapper man whose mesmerizing eyes and voice could make audiences or individuals terrified or ecstatic. The modern reader can hear this voice only through his prose, but the eyes shine out in portraits of Dickens at every age. Equally striking is the evidence of Dickens’ premature aging, brought on by outer stress and inner turmoil. Priestley contends that Dickens suicidally worked and read himself to an early grave at only fifty-eight years old, never completely at home in an age that adored and lionized him.
Another facet of biography that is especially important for the young adult reader is the sense that famous people are still fully human: They, like all people, have faults, troubles, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Priestley’s...
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Ever since Edmund Wilson’s groundbreaking psychological essay in the 1940’s, “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” most biographers of Dickens have examined his character and personality as well as the history of his novels or the temper of his times. Dickens the entertainer and Dickens the political reformer—more traditional views of the writer—have not been abandoned, but they are enhanced by greater emphasis on Dickens the man, the son, the husband, and the father. Priestley’s biography Charles Dickens falls squarely in this context. His book attempts no new insights and breaks no revolutionary ground; it simply details clearly and concisely, with the helpful addition of pictures, the standard twentieth century portrait of Dickens.
Priestley’s scholarship is sound, his analysis is insightful, and his balance of the good and bad in his subject is very useful for young adult biography, which too often has insisted that fame go hand in hand with saintliness at the expense of truth. Dickens crafted a life of genius out of the materials of despair, but the cost was dreadfully high. Charles Dickens chronicles that life very effectively.