Who is Charles Dickens?

The New York Review of Books article, “Who is Charles Dickens,” by Robert Gottlieb, reviews several biographies of Charles Dickens. This reading caught my eye immediately because it was easy to relate to a discussion we had in class. In one of the opening paragraphs Gottlieb states:

“There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again.”

Gottlieb makes a remarkable statement about Dickens in that paragraph. In class we joked that in order to be a good writer you must live a boring life. Good writers typically spend their time writing which limits their ability to do anything worth writing about in a biography, one would think. Gottlieb’s statement, however, depicts Dickens as being so extraordinary that even a poorly written biography about him is worth reading. Gottlieb quotes Longfellow who wrote after Dickens death that

“I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning” […]“It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

For Longfellow to say an entire country is grief-stricken because of Dicken’s death is a huge compliment, but it nevertheless sounds overblown. The placement of the quote from Longfellow and the paragraph above is phenomenal. Reading about how interesting and well-respected Dickens was engages the reader and makes them question why he was such a fantastic person to write about; it makes you want to read on.

Yet Gottlieb also reveals that Dickens may not be the loveable, joyous man that England portrayed him to be. After his death Dickens own daughter Katey stated in a letter to George Bernard:

“If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.”
Why would Dickens own daughter make such a request? Some answers to that question may be found in Dickens character David Copperfield. Gottlieb says,

“Forster told the world much that it did not know, most startling the story of the twelve-year-old Charles’s degrading (to him) employment in the blacking warehouse off the Strand to which his family’s near destitution had condemned him. He adapted this experience for David Copperfield, but no one not even his children had known that it was autobiographical.”

The public viewed Dickens as a Robin Hood of his time; he wanted to help the poor and advocated against slavery. In the public eye he was an outstanding citizen and a phenomenal writer. Dickens toured the United States making speeches expressing his opposition to slavery and his support for additional reform. However, the public did not see the person Dickens was behind closed doors. Dicken’s novels, although fictional, reveal a lot about himself. Dickens faced many challenges in his life, and although he was a successful writer, most of his personal relationships were strained and he suffered many loses most notably the death of his daughter. After his daughter’s death Dickens separated from his wife; these events accounted for a shift in his writing. Dickens writing began to reflect a darker world view; perhaps the way he truly viewed the world. A letter to Dicken’s daughter Katey says,

“All I can tell you is that your father was neither a storyteller like Scott, nor a tittle-tattler like Thackeray: he was really a perplexed and amused observer like Shakespear.”

Dickens observed the world and recorded how he perceived things. Dicken’s did not tell stories based on fiction, he wrote from life experiences and his characters reflect who he was; the person he hid from society.


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