THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS by A.N. Wilson - a review
Charles DIckens was a superb public performer, a great orator and one of the most famous of the Eminent Victorians. Like Oliver Twist, Dickens suffered a wretched childhood, then grew up to become not only a respectable gentleman but also an artist of prodigious popularity who truly experienced the worst and best of life during the Victorian Age.
Following him from cradle to grave, The Mystery of Charles Dickens is a masterfully drawn portrait of Dickens's creative genius and a superb examination of a colourful, paradoxical man. Filled with twists, pathos and unusual characters, it brilliantly revisits the wellspring of Dickens's wild imagination, revealing why his novels have such instantaneous appeal, why they continue to resonate today and why the author himself endures.
'I have no relief, but in action. I am incapable of rest . . . Much better to die, doing,' the hyper-energitic, over-sexed, tormented, exultant, hilarious, despondent Charles Dickens had written to a friend, thirteen years before he actually died.
Being somewhat obsessed with Charles Dickens - seven biographies at last count
plus two sets of complete works - one in a lovely 1930s Odhams edition
and another sequestered by my fourteen year old daughter of individually published editions
and an ever-worried wife that fears she may come home one day and find me in a pair of yellow trousers, a garish purple waistcoat and a false beard.
My obsession borders on being a little disturbing.
Apparently . . .
Anyway, back to the book.
I was initially drawn to the title of the book - aware of the secretive nature of Dickens's life - and was intrigued to see Wilson had framed each chapter in terms of a 'mystery', including the 'Mystery of his childhood', 'The Mystery of his cruel marriage' and 'The Mystery of the charity of Charles Dickens'.
Wilson tackles each theme with the assistance of a plethora of quotes from Dickens's novels and other writing. Juxtaposing the great man's own words within the context of his life when the words were written allows Wilson to build the argument that many of the novels - not just the two acknowledged autobiographical novels - David Copperfield and Great Expectations - but all the novels are confessional to some degree. For instance, how Oliver Twist mirrors many of the aspects of Dickens's own childhood roaming the streets of London alone, working in a boot polish factory, whilst his family lived with his father in the Marshalsea prison or how he wrote the death of Nancy on the anniversary of his own beloved sister-in-laws death.
Although clearly a fan of Dickens, Wilson does not shy away from the more troubling aspects of his subject - the long years of psychological torment with which he subjected his wife, his more unsavoury views towards the end of his life and his penchant for petit, childlike, very young women.
All in all, Wilson paints the picture of a flawed, brilliant man, forever on the run from the fear of poverty, from constant deadlines and from the truth being discovered about his relationship with the much younger Nelly Ternan. Charles Dickens was a man who, literally, worked himself to death.
At heart, a good man. I think. But a man, like Robert Johnson sang half a century after the death of Dickens, a man with Hellhounds on his Trail.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens comes highly recommended, and is available in Kindle, Paperback, Harback and Audiobook: