Dickens

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)