Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age by Peter Ackroyd

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Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age by Peter Ackroyd

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An abridged (although still lengthy) version of Ackroyd's original biography, regarded as the standard modern life, to mark Dickens bicentenary year.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099437093

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With publishers falling over each other in an effort to outdo each other in celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, it was perhaps inevitable that we should see a reappearance of what has become the modern standard life, by Peter Ackroyd. The 1200-page original was first published in 1990, while this 600-page abridged edition surfaced in 1994, and now makes another timely appearance.

Ackroyd tells the story of Dickens very thoroughly from his birth in Portsmouth in 1812. He sets the writer against his contemporary background, and the forces of early nineteenth-century England that made him very much a spokesman for the people of his time in his writings, a champion of the underdog – a boy who grew up in virtual poverty with an improvident father, becoming a young man who not only saw but experienced at first hand the hard times which were faced by most of the population in the early Victorian era. We see Dickens the son, the husband and the father as well as the prolific and celebrated author, although Ackroyd has less to say than others – notably Claire Tomalin – on his shortcomings as a family man and the often deeply unpleasant treatment of his wife and less favoured children. As a biographer Ackroyd is less critical of the man, and I would sense from this, just as interested in the London in which he lived, moved and more or else became a part, as in the personality himself.

He does nevertheless give full attention to Dickens’ writings, as well as the invincible power which drove a prematurely aged man on to work to the very end, partly as a means of earning a living and ensure he did not fall into the debts which often overpowered his father, perhaps partly as a distraction from the unhappiness of his marriage. A particularly illuminating moment comes in 1860, about the time Dickens began to write Great Expectations. He had more or less separated from his wife, sold one house to move into another, and with the aid of some members of his family, proceeded to make a huge bonfire of his past correspondence, including letters from fellow writers Carlyle, Thackeray, and George Eliot. Posterity, alas, is much the poorer. It was, says Ackroyd, as if in his new life there was almost some kind of hatred of the past.

By this time he was beginning to suffer from the aches and pains, the ill-health which would culminate in a stroke and his lingering illness and death in 1870. The contrast in the energetic, eagerly crusading, mercurial and good-humoured if sometimes angry young man of the 1840s and the equally radical but world-weary soul of twenty years later is acute. A railway accident in which he was injured and several other passengers killed in 1865 accelerated his physical decline, but he continued to work just as hard before, writing and giving public readings of his work. He could no more stop himself than he could stop breathing, we read. There is a growing sense of foreboding towards the end, as he predicted morosely that he would tear himself to pieces. Fame and success had not brought him to a contented old age, but to the very limits of human endurance until he was more or less resolved to die in harness.

Even this abridgement is a formidable work. Ackroyd brings us detail after detail, and for the reader who wishes to know almost everything about Dickens, this book will suffice very well. It does however suffer from the same factor as some of his other titles – this seemingly insatiable urge to present as many facts as possible. While he does stand back and present us with some analysis of the man, it is a largely uncritical treatment. This is a rich tapestry – in fact, perhaps a little too rich if anything. Other recent authors, notably Tomalin, have been just as ready to show his failings as well as to praise, and in the end produce a rather more objective work, but here it is as if Ackroyd is so beguiled by his hero that he can say little if anything against him. This is therefore a very thorough read but perhaps not so well-rounded.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend:

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves by Anne Isba

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Buy Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.com.


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