August 05, 2020

The Mystery of Charles Dickens

By A.N. Wilson
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Is there room on the shelf for another book about Charles Dickens? The great novelist has been endlessly scrutinized by critics and biographers, bowdlerized on stage and screen, and lionized by generations of readers since his death 150 years ago. A.N. Wilson, the celebrated British biographer of many eminent Victorians (including Queen Victoria herself), now lends his expertise and singular perspective in The Mystery of Charles Dickens.

Rather than providing a straightforward, linear biography, Wilson explores Dickens’ life and work through the prism of seven “mysteries” that shaped the elusive writer. “Dickens, as an actor and a novelist, and as a man, was a man of masks,” Wilson suggests, “who probably never revealed himself to anyone; quite conceivably, he did not reveal himself to himself.” The rich narrative begins with Dickens’ ultimate public deception: Even in the throes of death from a stroke in June 1870, he diligently kept the existence of his long-term extramarital relationship with actress Nelly Ternan from the adoring eyes of the public. Next, Wilson looks at the mysteries of Dickens’ parents—his problematic relationship with his father and his fraught feelings toward his mother—and how the depiction of childhood in his fiction reflects an ideal rather than a reality. Similarly, his disastrous marriage was marked by private cruelty that belied his magnanimous public persona. The writer’s considerable acts of charity, performed largely anonymously, were complicated as well. Wilson suggests that Dickens likely partook in the services of prostitutes even as he supported organizations tasked with setting these women on the straight and narrow.

It has long been acknowledged how much Dickens’ fiction drew on real life, both his own and the wider world he observed, but Wilson convinces readers that Dickens’ beloved fictional vision, both comic and condemning, was a creation of the writer’s imagination, not grounded in realism like Balzac. It is a romanticized picture of 19th-century reality. Wilson brings dazzling, far-reaching erudition to this study, drawing on unexpected, sometimes arcane sources to paint a portrait with impressive depth and nuance.

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