A. N. Wilson revisits the wellspring of Dickens’s vast and wild imagination, to reveal at long last why his novels captured the hearts of nineteenth century readers―and why they continue to resonate today.
... is not intended as a comprehensive biography, and it contains little fresh research. Instead it’s a sprightly work of reinterpretation. Besides being a prolific popular historian who has produced lives of Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, C.S. Lewis and Jesus, Mr. Wilson is a novelist, and he brings to the task of biography a shrewd sense of how creative writers operate, along with a large stock of intuitions about human nature. The results are frequently perceptive, though colored by a desire to provoke ... The opportunity is available to him because there is much about Dickens’s life that we simply don’t know. Each chapter sustains the promise of the book’s title by unpacking an at least partly obscure aspect of it, in a style that’s a mix of brisk exposition and expansive psychological inquiry ... Mr. Wilson, borrowing a term made popular by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, diagnoses a 'divided self,' though he analyses his subject’s contradictions with more subtlety than this well-worn phrase suggests ... Unlike some of Dickens’s best-known biographers, Mr. Wilson is keenly attentive to the books themselves and to parsing their effects. He is an observant reader and, as he makes clear, an avid re-reader, forever developing new insights into familiar stories ... Mr. Wilson is often happy to make his case with peppery audacity ... while Mr. Wilson’s speculations are sometimes clumsy, most are rooted, as becomes increasingly clear, in the emotional truth of his response to the novels.
Wilson’s methods are unlike those of his army of predecessors, whose research he credits appreciatively — he mostly eschews new detective work in favour of a reinterpretation of the existing material. That includes the evidence of fervent admirers as well as those who harboured misgivings ... Wilson’s attempt to pin down the Dickens we don’t know is energetic. He leads the reader by the hand, like one of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, to visit various moments in the writer’s life ... But as he draws his compelling portrait Wilson is continually confounded by his subject’s inconsistencies ... The thesis is only partly satisfying. It helps explain the outright hypocrisy of much of Dickens’ behaviour, but only insofar as it recasts it as evidence of another perversion.
Wilson points out that his generosity towards the poor and suffering was also a form of personal therapy, an attempt to deal with the unhappy period in his childhood which he spent working in a blacking factory, and which he kept returning to in his fiction as if touching a painful bruise ... what makes Wilson’s version of it so fascinating is the personal and committed way in which he approaches it ... Wilson has a fellow novelist’s understanding of what makes a piece of writing work on the page, and the happy knack of bringing it to life in his own prose.