by Peter Ackroyd

Hardcover, 1990




New York : HarperCollins, 1990.


A biography of the life and work of the celebrated English novelist.

Media reviews

... though it is maddening in its smugness, arises from a field of vision almost preposterously narrow, seems relentlessly self-absorbed and is couched in prose that often slithers and simpers, the book still finds a way to insinuate its importance. It does so, I think, not because it is itself peculiar but because it is so open to the peculiarity of its subject. Mr. Ackroyd's "Dickens" demands our attention precisely (and only) because it is so open to the strange.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
A truly massive book well written and well researched. I’m sure that there is nothing that happened to Dickens that Ackroyd does not cover. Each novel, magazine, reading tour, vacation, friendship, hissy fit, and wretched medical condition is fully laid out. (The anal fistula business was not pleasant.) I now know a lot more about Charles Dickens than I did before and I found that I would not have liked this man at all. I think that is one of the reasons that it took so very long to finish the book. I kept having to break away in order to gnash my teeth over him. Talented though he was, Dickens was petty, self-involved, rotten to his wife, obsessed with money, controlling (so controlling!), stubborn, racist and insensitive. (Not to mention his really odd obsession with his dead sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.) And he was so exhausting! The man could not seem to stay in one place. His adult life seemed constantly to be spent moving from one location to another. I did not count them, but I feel confident saying that he customarily moved five or six times in the course of a year. From his main residence in London to the seaside in England to some location in Europe, then back to London, then to a house or rooms rented for just himself, then back to the London house yet again, out to a house in the country or some little town and then back to London – the man never seemed to be able to stay still. Who knows how much writing time he lost with all that shifting about? Then there were the dinners and parties, the reading tours that eventually killed him and the numerous plays (private and public) that he staged. (Given his choice, I think Dickens would have almost preferred to have been an actor.) Then there was poor Catherine, his wife. I always thought of Dickens as a man who cared so much about the unfortunate and downtrodden. None of that empathy, if he really did possess any, extended to his wife. Catherine was a woman who suffered from severe post-partum depression yet she delivered nine live babies descending each time into the depths of misery. On each occasion, Dickens seemed not to feel very much for his wife beyond a kind of irritation with her, if that. Most of the time beyond deriding what he liked to think of as her dullness, he really just ignores her. On one of his tours in Scotland, he drags the heavily pregnant Catherine along with him. She suffers a miscarriage along the way, is put to bed and her husband demonstrates his compassion for her by going on about his business opining that he has “never enjoyed myself more completely.” Years later, he throws her out of the house in favor of the actress, Ellen Ternan (who is his daughter’s age), separating her from her children, the youngest of whom is only six. Yes, Dickens was self-centered indeed.

This is not to take away anything at all from the job Ackroyd did. He makes a pretty good case for the argument that Dickens and Ellen were not having a sexual affair; that Dickens was not interested in that sort of thing, but he was rather more likely to have been carrying on a more platonic love affair with the woman – even something more in the nature of a brother-sister relationship. Still, whatever it was, Dickens most definitely was unfaithful to his wife and family.

I do wish that I had read all of Dickens’ novels before reading this autobiography; probably I would have gotten more out of Ackroyd’s discussion of the ones I haven’t read and would be able to better judge if he knew what he was talking about, but at least I know that I will probably not read The Pickwick Papers – that book does not sound like my cup of tea.

The only thing that I found to be odd were these little three or four page interludes (seven of them in all) sprinkled throughout the book where, in the first six of them, various of Dickens’ characters had these little dialogs. I confess that I skipped over them as they did not seem to me to add anything to the book at hand. I may have been wrong to do that, but with 1,083 pages to read I really wanted to get on with things.

A recommended, if exhausting read.
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LibraryThing member herschelian
I have read several biographies of Dickens, and this one by Ackroyd is for me the best. After reading it I felt I knew and understood Dickens better than I do some members of my own family.
LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
At just under 1100 pages, no one could accuse Peter Ackroyd of skimping upon the tale of Charles Dickens. I would also be surprised if anyone were bored by this book: I was gripped from page one to the end. It is an exceedingly well rounded biography and Mr Ackroyd goes to considerable trouble to neither castigate Dickens for his life's mistakes, or to exonerate him from responsibility. It is clear that Charles, whilst probably being the first celebrity to champion the humanity of the poor, was a rampant racist. He loved his audience and could not do enough for them, but treated his wife most poorly.

Few English speaking people can be ignorant of the works of Dickens, or the fact that our "traditional Christmas" is an, almost exclusively, Dickens creation. Most will know, too, of his reading tours of both Britain and America which turned him into an early rock star. I was not, however aware of his involvement in the Staplehurst train crash, where he saved the life of a chap, ironically called Dickinson, and further risked his life to save the manuscript of his latest work. Dickens suffered a type of railway phobia for the remaining five years of his life and his son, Charley is reported to have said that he is convinced that the accident cost Dickens his life. This might have more impact were it not for the fact that the same progeny seems to have blamed his readings based upon the death of Nancy, his reading tours in general and his illicit affair with Ellen Ternan.

Ackroyd's style of literary longevity means that there is time to explore life in the nineteenth century and the detail about the debtor's gaol is particularly interesting. To say that this book is a must for any Dickens fan, is so obvious, as to be unnecessary, but this tome is worth the reading by any body interested in British history, the art of biography, or just fine writing. This book enters my bookcase as a new friend.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
A thorough and engaging biography of the classic victorian author. I enjoyed the insights provided by Mr. Ackroyd.
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Way too long, but I guess that's appropriate for the long-winded Dickens. I think Ackroyd could have adequately conveyed the essence of the man with various anecdotes rather than creating a day-to-day history. BUT he certainly did give me a sense of the man that I did not possess heretofore. The manic energy, the imagined slights, helped round out my vague idea of a man of unique sensibilities. The only shock to me was how shabbily he treated his wife and how he justified his actions through self-deceit. Overall, a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lewter
Long but engrossing. Interesting reflections that occasionally interrupt the chronology.
LibraryThing member charlie68
The greatest biography on Dickens ever written. Invaluable tool for any fan of this writer.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
At last, after two months and 21 days of reading. There is no doubt that this biography, at 1144 exhaustively researched pages, is a monumental literary achievement. There is plenty of rich content, but also some dull content in places. Unfortunately, the book is structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to read. The chapters are mostly too long, with no titles, thus making orientation throughout the book more difficult. The paragraphs are very long, quite often a whole page or more. Ackroyd never uses 10 words when he can use 100 and makes the same points over and over again e.g. about the symptoms of Dickens's illnesses, his regression to his childhood, the need to carry on working to fulfill a sense of purpose, etc. etc. There are some odd little unexplained fictional interludes at the end of some chapters and an unattributed interview with the author at the end of one of them in the middle of the book. So, in short, a difficult and challenging work, one that I will certainly never read again from cover to cover, but the ultimate work of reference on the great author's life. This makes it very hard to rate, and 3.5/5 is the highest I can go.… (more)



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