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 biography does not disguise troubling facts. He candidly portrays the Charles Dickens who could be moody, rigid, selfish, grasping, and even adulterous at the same time that he was the spokesman for Victorian domestic bliss. Dickens was a deeply troubled man who himself claimed that he never lost that feeling of “something wanting” in his life, and his genius is in part his search for meaning and contentment. To tell Dickens’ triumph of will and talent over adversity and leave out his tragedy of perpetual discontent is to mislead the reader; from the opening pages, Priestley honors this obligation to be balanced, to paint both light and dark.
Priestley’s text and choice of illustrations help modern readers put themselves into the culture of nineteenth century London and the Continent. He mentions the great events of Dickens’ time: the...
(The entire section is 570 words.)