Charles Dickens: A Pictorial Biography

by J. B. Priestley
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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.

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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 coronation of Victoria, the First Reform Bill, the American Civil War, and the Staplehurst railway disaster. He introduces the reader to the other great literary figures of Dickens’ day, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Priestley makes it clear that Dickens was the greatest of his group because of his humor, his pathos, his sense of his own era, his enormous energy, and his capacity for variety. The author also includes the little everyday tales that are so enlightening, such as whose side Dickens took in an argument at the Garrick Club or the fact that he missed his chance to become an actor rather than a writer because he had a sore throat.

Finally, although not specifically designed for a young reader, Charles Dickens is a good introductory biography for the casual reader because of its length. The scholarship available on Dickens is massive, and most lay readers find this amount of material daunting. Priestley includes the high points without neglecting important people or events. Many young adult readers, their interest engaged, will go on from this biography to read more about this singular man and his work.

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