The early life of Charles Dickens is, for many readers, as familiar as his stories. Buffeted by a financially and emotionally insecure childhood, put to work in a factory at age twelve, rejected at twenty-one by a woman he had courted for two years (her father saw no future in marrying her to a self-educated shorthand reporter), Dickens was by his twenty-sixth birthday not only married (to someone else) and a parent but also, on the strength of his first two books, acclaimed as one of England’s most important living novelists. General knowledge, however, often ends with the fragmentary schoolbook accounts of a man whose adolescent suffering fueled David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861). Fred Kaplan’s Dickens: A Biography emphasizes the continued emotional contradictions and ambiguities of the novelist’s adult life.
Domestic discontent and an apparently inescapable fear of financial ruin drove Dickens to a hyperactive public life and a workaholic commitment to simultaneous projects with overlapping deadlines. He was both a crusading social reformer and an antidemocratic snob. Compulsively seeking close personal relationships, he consumed friends and turned viciously on publishers. His writing molded the sentimental nineteenth century image of childhood, yet a letter announcing the birth of a son remarks that “on the whole I could have dispensed with him.” Never ceasing to blame his mother for thrusting him out to work when his father was imprisoned for debt, he sent several of his own boys off to India or Australia at sixteen and recognized that his daughter Kate married at nineteen primarily to escape from home.
Kaplan is a literary scholar, an acclaimed biographer for his 1983 study of Thomas Carlyle, and coeditor of Dickens Studies Annual. The book he has produced is fair, authoritative, and at the same time highly readable. It is packed with swift-moving incident and capsule portraits of the people Dickens knew. There is not, however, any new or startling information. Kaplan’s access to unpublished materials in the ongoing Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’ letters from Oxford University Press provides depth and personal voice but does not raise or settle any controversies. Historical context is provided by brief phrases characterizing Dickens’ associates rather than through analysis of the social and intellectual movements that were powerful in nineteenth century England.
In the century since John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-1874) revealed the blacking-factory episode and obfuscated the reasons for the novelist’s separation from Catherine Dickens after twenty-one years of marriage, hardly a year has passed without one or more books on Dickens. The biographies have taken approaches ranging from idolatry to scandalmongering and tones from magisterial to psychiatric to banal. Edgar Johnson’s 1,355-page Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952) remains the most comprehensive source for informative detail and for critical overviews of the novels.
Kaplan’s more condensed rendering provides a vivid sense of Dickens as a person driven by inner conflicts and the need for public admiration. He strives to understand Dickens’ feelings and actions without becoming either a partisan or a critic. His handling of the marital separation, for example, is deliberately temperate. Yes, the middle-aged man fell in love with a young actress—but no, the ending of a marriage is seldom quite that simple. Kaplan reports Dickens’ dreams of imprisonment, his romantic fantasies about a succession of young women, and his ungenerous criticisms of the dependency of a wife from whose hands he had (early in marriage) seized the management of every detail, down to the choice of names for their children. Yet he also shows the power disturbance that made sleep, work, and home life virtually impossible and the strength of Dickens’ need for emotional replenishment. One can understand that a woman of nineteen who married a struggling journalist and had ten children (and more than one miscarriage) in the next fifteen years might lack the intellectual sparkle to stimulate his mind, the energy to share his public life, and the emotional resources to fill his insatiable needs. The turmoil, the negotiations over separate dwellings and financial...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)