The most immediately noticeable feature of this new biography of Dickens is its length: a massive 1,195 pages. Is it then one of those biographies which testify to indiscriminate drudgery, piling detail upon detail ad nauseam? No, not at all. There is detail here aplenty (Ackroyd quotes David Copperfield’s observation that “trifles make the sum of life"), but the shaping principle of Ackroyd’s book is quite different from that which governs the typical laundry-list biography.
Ackroyd’s life of Dickens is long because it is not merely a book about Dickens; it is a book written in Dickens’ own style. Like Dickens himself, Ackroyd unleashes a flood of words, pulling out all the rhetorical stops to achieve a dramatic—or, often enough, melodramatic—effect. Ackroyd further departs from convention with seven entr’actes which come at his subject from unexpected angles. (These brief passages, which appear at irregular intervals between chapters, are not listed in the table of contents.) In one of these, Ackroyd interviews himself in the role of biographer; in another, Thomas Chatterton, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot (on all of whom Ackroyd has written) carry on a conversation with Dickens; in yet another, characters from Dickens novels intermingle in a dreamlike setting.
Ackroyd’s method of biography-as-impersonation yields mixed results. He conveys vividly—far more so than Fred Kaplan, whose DICKENS (1988) is the most recent...
Had Joanna Richardson not used the phrase as the title for her life of Tennyson some thirty years earlier, Peter Ackroyd might have chosen to call his study of Dickens The Preeminent Victorian. Certainly even more than Tennyson, Dickens captured in his life and writings that which was most decidedly characteristic of the period in which he lived and worked. The novelist upheld conventional virtues (and sinned against them, as many of his contemporaries did) and was strident in his pronouncements in favor of social change. He was a product of the new technologies as much as he was a harbinger of their dangers: Trains took him across the country at hitherto unheard-of speeds, announcements of his dramatic performances were heralded by telegraph and in daily papers, and those performances were illuminated by the new gaslight systems installed in auditoriums everywhere. The increasing rate of literacy among the middle classes and even among some of the lower classes, coupled with a growing interest in the novel as a popular form of entertainment, assured him of an audience unheard of a century earlier—and lost a century later when electronic media superseded the printed word as the media of choice for entertainment.
Ackroyd’s biography is something like a Dickens novel itself: almost eleven hundred pages of text followed by more than a hundred pages of notes. It is massive, detailed, and filled with suspenseful writing, including chapters that leave readers anxious to learn what is to come next. Like Dickens, Ackroyd focuses on character, displaying repeatedly how the force of Dickens’ personality shaped events, determined the destiny of his fictional heroes, and influenced those around the author himself.
Dickens led an incredibly active life, even by the standards of the nineteenth century, when prodigious activity seemed commonplace among the giants of politics, literature, and social reform. He produced more than a dozen major novels, edited periodicals for almost thirty years, and spent considerable time organizing theatricals in which he took roles on stage and behind the scenes. During the last two decades of his life, he traversed the country and traveled to America to deliver a series of dramatic readings, offering a one-man show that brought to life the most sentimental and gruesome scenes from his novels.
Ackroyd tries to capture the energy of his subject, relying heavily on anecdotes to dramatize the tremendous variety of activities in which Dickens was engaged and displaying the wide range of interests and friendships he developed over his lifetime. Ackroyd argues that, beneath the comic spirit that characterized Dickens’ life and works “there is a sorrowfulness…almost a coldness, about aspects of Dickens’ life on earth.” Ackroyd points out that images of imprisonment run throughout Dickens’ writings; the novelist seems haunted by the notion that life itself is a prison from which death gives the only guaranteed escape. At the same time, Dickens was intent on living life to its fullest, thriving when the stress of his competing interests weighed most heavily upon him. In fact, though other biographers have emphasized the toll that the reading tours took on Dickens, Ackroyd is not so sure that these dramatic performances were directly and largely responsible for the novelist’s relatively early demise. He believes the tours gave Dickens an opportunity to release some of the anxiety he was feeling about his life, especially after he was separated from his wife and began his clandestine relationship with Ellen Ternan.
Ackroyd spends considerable time describing Dickens’ childhood in Rochester and London because he believes that those early years, during which Dickens came to despise his parents’ treatment of him, were critical in shaping all of his fiction. The overriding theme of Ackroyd’s study is that the events of Dickens’ childhood were stamped on the novelist’s memory—and on his subconscious—and everything done by the man was simply an attempt to resurrect the child whose life had been made miserable by a spendthrift father and a callous mother. Ackroyd sees in virtually every work of fiction an attempt by the novelist to get back at parents whom he considered unfit. In a sense, Dickens is for Ackroyd a Peter Pan figure, a boy who does not want to grow up. His behavior even in his...