Dickens (Magill Book Reviews)
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...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Dickens (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
(The entire section is 1789 words.)