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.
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.
Wilson has taken a personal, almost memoir-ish approach to a writer who comforted the biographer at key points in his life, especially the gauntlet of British boarding school ... Like Dickens’ last major biographer, Ackroyd, Wilson notes that the mere facts of Dickens’s hyper-productive life never make clear what a complicated man he truly was; and just as Ackroyd embellished his book with intermittent fictionalized passages (for which Ackroyd was often criticized), Wilson has taken a similar, near-fictive approach to Dickens’ life.
Here, to put it bluntly, is a highly peculiar biography—peculiar not for what it says about Dickens but for what it says about Wilson himself. He is a strong presence throughout his book ... Wilson has a number of persuasive ideas about Dickens, whom he sees as not only a conflicted personality but a tragic one, despite his genius for comedy ... The Mystery of Charles Dickens has judicious things to say about Dickens, but then, suddenly, Wilson veers into autobiography, as his own internal pressures rise to the surface ... The kind of carelessness that blemishes Tolstoy is also on display in The Mystery of Charles Dickens. And there is at least one serious error, the statement that Dickens forbade his and Catherine’s children to see her after she was banished ... The greatest geniuses are inexplicable, but they share an amazing fecundity of invention ... How to begin comprehending such a phenomenon? Alas, not through A. N. Wilson’s Mystery of Charles Dickens.