Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley

Title: Charles Dickens: A Life
Author: Jane Smiley

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Literary Criticism / Writers on Writers / 19th century / UK)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (11/29/2011)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did, very easily!
One-sentence summary: An easy, welcoming intro to the life and times of Charles Dickens.

Do I like the cover?: Adore it. How quintessentially Victorian is it?!

First line: The literary sensibility of Charles Dickens is possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- very readable, lovely size (easy to hold), and fascinating.

Why did I get this book?: I like Jane Smiley, I like the Victorians, and I've always been curious about Dickens.

Review: Terrible confession: I hate Dickens. At least, I think I do; I'm not sure I've ever read him, other than A Christmas Carol, and to be honest, I'm not even sure I've read it.  (I've certainly seen enough adaptations to think I have!)  Of all the Victorian authors in the world, he appeals to me the least. I know, I'm a godless heathen for saying so. I hope to rectify this someday and read something of his, but other books jostle to the top of the list.

All this is to say I know little about Dickens. But as with the Edna O'Brien bio on Joyce, I love writers on writers. Where O'Brien's take was boisterous, rowdy, emulating Joyce's style, Smiley's is a more traditional biography, although not entirely chronologically. She hits on the themes of Dickens life -- family, social critique, celebrity -- and offers background for readers about his works.

I enjoyed this read -- it was quick, very easy to get in to, and enlightening without being overwhelming. As with most biographies, learning more about authors is a mixed bag for me: I love reading about other lives, and I especially enjoy learning about the creative process, but I do hate learning less savory details about historical figures I might like. In this, Smiley is remarkably (maddeningly, I found) even-handed, acknowledging Dickens' wife's depression while still honoring Dickens' unhappiness with his wife. As with the Joyce biography, I was more interested in the women of Dickens' life, but this slender volume is not the place for it.

As a starting place for anyone interested in Charles Dickens and his works, I highly recommend this book. Smiley suggests her own reading order for anyone starting with Dickens, and provides brief context and commentary on his major works to springboard the curious reader into their own Dickens studies.


  1. Well, this is interesting, because I love Dickens' books but highly dislike him as a person. But then I've never read a biography of him, so this is therefore added to the TBR pile.

  2. I'm terrible at separating the author from creation; so if I hate the author, I really have a hard time liking the books (or film, art, whatever). Super childish, I suppose, but such is life. That said, Smiley's affection for Dickens is clear without giving him a blank check to be a tool.

  3. I'm not a big fan of Dickens either. I read a few of his books in high school, but I keep meaning to try one again as an adult and see if I change my mind. Glad you enjoyed this book, even if you're not sure you've read him. ;)

  4. I have this one too, so it's good to hear your endorsement!

  5. I laughed at your confession. I LOVE Dickens but Smiley and I do not get along. I liked her quite a bit when I was in my twenties, but I don't feel as if she has evolved that much as a writer or I've completely outgrown her. Maybe a bit of both.

  6. I can't say I know much about him...strike that, I do not know anything at all. Other than that he wrote books

  7. @Anna: His passion for social change and commitment to recognizing those without a voice is something that appeals to me, so I'm surprised I haven't read him yet! I def need to try him as an adult.

    @Rhapsody: Can't wait to see what you think!

    @Ti: I don't think I've read any of her fiction -- just her essays. Some her stuff is on my 'Someday' TBR. Someday!

    @Blodeuedd: Exactly! That was about my extent of knowledge!

  8. Now you've got me adding another literary bio to my wishlist! Have read several of his novels, but I know very little about Dickens' life.

  9. I am very interested in this one. I have been intimidated by Dickens even since I read A Tale of Two Cities, so maybe this would be a nice segue.

  10. @JoAnn: Oh, then def grab this one -- apparently the only other Dickens bio is like, 1000 pages. This one is 246. Very nutshell but great context.

    @Lola: The length of his stuff has intimidated me, too, but Smiley has gotten me a mite curious about him, I have to confess. His clear passion for social change -- something I'm keen on -- is a big hook.

  11. So know what you mean about writers on writers! Like Dickens but actually don't know much about him so this would be very interesting. (Total aside, only recently learned about Edna OBrien whom I REALLY want to read more of, have never read Joyce, but would read her on Joyce in a heartbeat...)

  12. I was actually bored with this book, but it's VERY possible that I just wasn't in the mood to read it. I will go back to it hopefully soon!

  13. @Jennifer: You *must* read her on Joyce -- marvelous -- exuberant and energetic. I think she might be a good intro to Joyce and his work since she loves his writing -- it gets passed on to the reader.

    @Jenny: I can appreciate that -- it was sedate compared to the other book in the Penguin Lives series -- and Smiley didn't attend to the 'juicier' parts of Dickens' life, whereas O'Brien made no bones about the sex life between Joyce and his wife.

  14. I love Jane Smiley - I'll have to read this. I like that you say it was "quick" because that's always good.

    Plus, Charles Dickens is wonderful.

  15. I think that Dickens is a fascinating man, but his writing has left much to be desired. Of all the Dickens I've read, I only enjoyed Great Expectations and Christmas Carol. The movie adaptations are good, but they leave out the more boring and annoying parts of his writing. Tale of Two Cities is the worst book in the least to me...

    Regardless, I would like to read this one.

  16. I have never really focused much attention on authors, but I've loved your recent "writers on writers" reviews, and I definitely plan to read a few myself.

  17. I loved this book and felt like Smiley really did a lot to highlight Dickens in a way that wasn't always glamorous. I HATED the way he treated his wife, and had not known about that before. It was eye-opening, to say the least! Great review on this one today!

  18. Interesting that you're reviewing this biog when everyone is talking about the recently-published Claire Tomalin one. Refreshing!

  19. You know, I often find myself more fascinated by the authors themselves than any of the novels they produced -- and I think that would absolutely be the case with Dickens! I'm sure I read his work in college, but it didn't make much of an impression on me. Still, I'm interested in reading Smiley's take on the author!

  20. Like you I've always avoided Dickens with the thought that I dislike his work. Who knows, people seem to like him so perhaps I should try him some day!

  21. I don't think I've read anything by Smiley but Dickens is a hit and miss for me. I've read a few I really enjoyed and a few others I didn't. I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

  22. This sounds like a great read. I once read somewhere that DIckens almost fainted while writing the death scene of one of his characters, and I find that fascinating--that he could feel and slip into his characters' shoes so thoroughly.

  23. After Zibilee's review a few weeks (months?) ago, I've had this one on my radar. I love a short biography (that's bad, I know, but it's true.) I need to carve time out for this one sometime soon!


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