Ackroyd shows us Dickens as he probably was--the man who walked compulsively, sometimes for 20 or 30 miles at a clip. He shows us Dickens buying the very house his father had once suggested to the boy as an example of what a successful man might one day achieve. He shows us the man enslaved to writing, to editing--All the Year Round, his final weekly magazine, had a circulation of 300,000--and to giving public readings so often, so frenziedly, that they killed him. Ackroyd shows us how this moody and disappointed man, while in the deepest sorrows, wrote his funniest humor. Ackroyd shows us the writer who not only beat the system, but who became the system.
Ackroyd understands Dickens, and he understands how writing works. He shows us how Dickens seized at the myths that the literary and semiliterate found at the heart of fairy tales and fables, and he shows us how Dickens made his personal demons about abandonment and loss of control into stories essential to everyone. Ackroyd, a Londoner, loves and understands cities in general and London in particular. He is able to speak fascinatingly about Dickens' dark evocations of urban life. Hear Dickens, in "A Christmas Carol," describing how "candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air." Ackroyd makes us see Charles Dickens in that smoky time and place.
To his good telling of a magnificent story, Ackroyd brings the style of his novels ("The Great London Fire," "Chatterton," "First Light"), and the match of matter and manner is often fine. Here Ackroyd evokes the 19th-Century rural populace that "poured into the narrow streets; poured into the jerry-built houses constructed back to back without drainage; poured into the cellars; poured into the frowsy lanes which had a channel of sewage running along them; poured into the cellars; poured into the once-grand buildings which had become a jangling honeycomb of tenements. . . ."
Ackroyd echoes Dickens' prose (the master often chose to use extended series of phrases beginning with verbs), and he's often successful in doing so.
Where Ackroyd's prose fails Dickens and maybe many readers is in an automatic use of unessential sentence fragments. Describing Dickens' fascinated, horrified reaction to a public hanging, Ackroyd writes that "the feeling of horror is genuine and private." He can now leave the moment alone, secure that it's effectively described, or go on to analyze Dickens' response. He chooses to write too much that adds too little, and he resorts to bathetic prose: "Private anxiety fueling public denunciation. The horror of life. The pity of life."
As enthusiastic about his subject as he should be, Ackroyd is given at times to sententiousness. So Dickens came "crying into the world," we're told on Page 1. The need to announce, along with a need to reinforce with comment what has just been clearly shown, results in tones more appropriate to Dickens' funnier re-creations of his father's pomposities: "So far had the young author already come"; "So did the real world enter Dickens' fiction"; "So did his life, interior and exterior, continue." \o7 Where was Ackroyd's editor?\f7
And this final complaint: There are neither footnotes nor end notes in this book. Perhaps some readers will be grateful. Despite Ackroyd's small essays about some of the sources he consulted, found in an appendix, the interested reader cannot follow Ackroyd directly to his reading. The book will be deemed untrustworthy by many, and it's hard to understand why Ackroyd chose to be both unhelpful and unreliable. The story he tells us is of course unaffected--unless you want to know how he knows what he says he knows, and how you can find out more.
But we must be grateful for what Ackroyd does so well. He suggests the problems inherent in turning the life of a century, and the life of a man, into a story that readers want to hear. And he lets us feel what the art of writing might be like: "It was not an instant or an easy process, and throughout Dickens' writing life, the symptoms at the beginning of a new novel are the same. 'Violent restlessness, and vague ideas of going I don't know where. . . .' And then again, ' . . . it is like being \o7 driven away.\f7 ' "
Ackroyd describes how "Dickens became irritable, solitary, preoccupied, ' . . . going round and round the idea . . .' not being able to settle on any one thing and therefore not able to rest." And Ackroyd makes him see how for Dickens "the characters come and settle within the narrative, bringing with them their own lines of force which complicate the essential plot."