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Friday, May 11, 2012

“Dickens: A Biography”, by Fred Kaplan


607 pages, William Morrow & Co, ISBN-13: 978-0688043414

Mr. Kaplan has set forth a full scholarly account of Charles Dickens, as the extensive notes attest to. I was most struck by Dickens' phenomenal energy in writing all those novels, doing public readings, walking miles a day, and raising a family of eight children! Dickens' relationship with women was also very interesting. Dickens had strained relationships with his mother, wife and an early love, Maria Beadwell. These relationships reappear in his writings. He also had very close sister/wife relationships with two of his sister-in-laws and his daughters. Although it may never be fully understood why Dickens separated from his wife Catherine after 23 years of marriage, Mr. Kaplan does a fairly good job of explaining this situation.

One is impressed by Dickens' energy, his flair for the theatrical and his overwhelming genius. This biography does a very good job of painting a portrait of Charles Dickens the man and his many activities. Towards the end of the biography, there are times when Mr. Kaplan chronologically jumps and repeats certain events out of sequence. This, and several photos from 1865 labeled as 1845 are about the only faults in this very well executed biography.

One of the reasons I think Kaplan is so successful in his portrait is that he weaves numerous quotes from letters by Dickens and his many correspondents almost seamlessly into the text. It gives more of a feeling for Dickens as a man of his time as opposed to looking back and trying to compose a modern view of him. I also like the way Kaplan shows Dickens as an acute observer who integrated people and places he knew into his fiction. There are risks in reading a novel too biographically, but it is interesting to try to pin down an author's inspirations and themes. Kaplan handles this quite well but he doesn't go into any of the novels in depth so someone unfamiliar with Dickens' books might have trouble in some places.

The key word is “scholarly”. If you want the run-of-the-mill pulp bio, you won't find it here. What you will find is a treasure of information on Dickens and his life. I have read every major biography of Dickens, and Kaplan's work is by far the best. I don't know how others could call it "boring," for I couldn't put it down. If you need your biographies “punched up”, perhaps you should try Ackroyd's bio, which is more colorful but also more rambling. This is solid work, from a solid researcher.

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