His feckless parents struggled to cling to the middle class, and as a boy Charles Dickens helped pawn their books and furniture while the large family moved from house to house, from Kent to Camden Town to London, and from respectability to the Marshalsea debtors' prison, where in 1824 for three months all but one of them lived.
Charles Dickens, barely 13, was locked out. He worked in a shoe-blacking factory among rough boys and lived on his own in a small room. He roamed a dark, sinister London alone, and he later wrote of those days: "It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age." Wherever his holidays, romances, research trips or celebrated public readings were to take him, he would return in memory and metaphor to a terrifying city and a small child crushed by menace, abandonment and helplessness.
In "Oliver Twist" or "A Tale of Two Cities," in "David Copperfield" or "Little Dorrit," he wrote of the nightmare world of children. No matter his considerable wealth and vast fame, he fretted about money and always complained of "a vague unhappy loss or want of something" that he couldn't name or fulfill. His angers were both selfish and generous, and they focused his art not only on his own childhood fears but on the immense wrongs of his day.
The age in part created Charles Dickens, and he in part created his age. The man in his time is what Peter Ackroyd so capably shows us in this huge new biography. Here we have the young journalist who wrote by guttering candles in cramped rooms. We see Dickens as he rises from debt and insecurity in a time when children crawled through reeking sewers to scavenge bits of glass and bone while "resurrection-men" dug up graves and sold the dead. Thames water was drawn for the poor to drink; it received the open streams of sewage that the poor had filled. In 1839, when Dickens was 27 and moving his family to a solid middle-class home--he was already the famous author of "Oliver Twist"--half of the funerals in London were for children under 10.
Dickens wrote about those children. He was the most celebrated writer of his time because he showed his age to itself. He also transformed the ordinary particulars of his time with a theatrical, fabulous vision that showed the early and middle Victorians what went on beneath the surfaces he both celebrated and excoriated. His books bear those times to us today. His characters--Pip, David, Nell, Gradgrind, Murdstone, Quilp--remain great for us. So does the story of their author, who wrote because his life depended on giving birth through his remarkable will and talent to himself. Ackroyd tells us this story with grace and power, often with brilliance.
The first great contemporary biography of Dickens was the two-volume "Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph" by Edgar Johnson, published in 1952. It set the standard for impeccable scholarship (and admiration of its subject). Its 1,141 pages of text and copious end notes are joined by the 556 pages of text and 29 pages of end notes in the 1988 "Dickens: A Biography" by Fred Kaplan. Between the hugeness of the Johnson and the concision of the Kaplan, with its meticulous prowling through the bounties of new Dickens material unearthed over a quarter of a century, readers and students had what they needed: faithful attention, and a new fearless discussion of Dickens' marriage and its breakdown--he discarded his wife, who had borne 10 children--and his lifelong attention to handsome young women, his sad, long affair with a sometime actress, Ellen Ternan. We learned what we needed about his career as aspiring actor, journalist, editor, writer of fiction, son of irresponsible parents; his stern fatherhood, his dominance over his day.
But we have never had such extended and witty attention to how the great writing was done--and such attention ought to be at the heart of a writer's biography. That is where Richard Ellmann's lives of Yeats and Joyce display their magnificent achievement and where Johnson, Kaplan and such early predecessors as Dickens' friend and agent, John Forster, do not succeed. That is where Ackroyd, a distinguished novelist and biographer, makes his major contribution. He not only comes as close as may be possible to suggesting what it was like to live in Dickens' London--Dickens surely is the great writer of urban life--but he writes movingly of the process of Dickens' creating, and there are times when we may feel that we actually see how the magic was achieved.