Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph Analysis

Edgar Johnson

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In 1977, Edgar Johnson drastically abridged his original 1952 biography Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, eliminating the chapters offering criticism of Dickens’ novels, the footnotes, and the bibliography and cutting down on several other chapters. He also revised the book in accordance with new scholarly evidence. The result is a highly readable biography that offers an excellent introduction to Dickens and Victorian England.

Drawing on thousands of Dickens’ letters, both published and unpublished, in addition to other primary and secondary sources, Johnson traces Dickens’ life from his birth in 1812 to his death in 1870. The book examines the hardships of his early life, which included his father’s imprisonment in Marshalsea for debts and his own job in a boot-blacking warehouse. The biography then chronicles Dickens’ climb to fame, beginning with his sketches by “Boz,” a pseudonym, that led to The Pickwick Papers (18361837); his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, which would eventually result in separation; and his huge popularity in both England and the United States.

The biography also details Dickens’ relationships with important personages of the time, many of whom were his friends, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas Carlyle, George Cruikshank, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For example, Johnson describes the result of a quarrel between Thackeray and Dickens over the actions of a Mr. Yates. Thackeray concluded that Dickens was jealous of him (Thackeray) as a fellow writer, and Dickens believed that Thackeray was senselessly crucifying Yates, who was not yet established enough to defend himself. The two former friends ended their once-strong relationship, only speaking briefly a few days before Thackeray’s death in 1863, although their daughters continued to be friends.

Charles Dickens also discusses the famous writer’s personal life, drawing upon his own correspondence. Johnson quotes several passages in which Dickens discusses his inability to resolve the problems with his marriage, concluding that he and Catherine were simply not meant for each other and that nothing could be done about it. According to Dickens, “It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too—and much more so.”

The abridged edition of Charles Dickens is still lengthy, and it presents a mainly chronological portrait of Dickens and his world. Many black-and-white illustrations and photographs, with captions, are also included.