This week, on Tuesday, November 29th, two biographies made their debut: CHARLES DICKENS A LIFE by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and JAMES JOYCE A LIFE by Edna O’Brien.
As a youngster biographies fueled my early interest in reading, I could not get enough of them. I think the many, many, many, did I say many years of schooling that followed sort of pushed me in the direction of reading for pleasure. Somehow my brain compartmentalized that as fiction and then light fiction. I was dragging my feet before breaking into the Dickens biography prior to this post, but I was wrong and cannot wait to read Joyce.
My interest in the life of Dickens has been heightened this year with all of the talk about books and events planned to commemorate next year’s 200th anniversary. From the start Smiley indicated this was not going to be your standard biography as she acknowledged the plethera out there already and specifically those by a peer Forster and more recently by Ackroyd that she references throughout the book. Instead, Smiley chose to look at his literary works and then lay them over his life and take us through it in that manner.
Prior to reading this biography, I did not know much about Dickens the man nor his literary works. I was surprised to find out how much of a celebrity he was during his life and that he made a very good life for his with his writing and performances. Dickens had ten children and a wife and others in his life that he continued to support throughout his life.
Like most creative artists the road was not smooth sailing. From early on Dickens controlled his literary path like none other. He was a business man and not just a writer. He was accepted into society and he was often shuned by fellow peers because of his position and perhaps acceptance. But one thing was clear, Dickens used his society platform and good favor to speak for those less fortunate and he continued to do so throughout his life. Very similar to our modern day celebrities that take on causes with their platforms.
One of my favorite stories shared by Smiley was the house that Dickens was able to purchase later in life. While writing LITTLE DORRIT he purchased Gad’s Hill Place a large house in Kent. Dickens and his father had admired this together when he was just a little boy and his father had indicated that this was within his reach if he worked hard. And it looks like Dickens did just that and through a set of coincidences Dicken’s was able to purchase if for his family.
Another aspect of Smiley’s biography that fascinated me was the discussion of characters in his works that were pulled from his real life. While this is nothing new for a writer it seems like Dickens might have been even less transparent then other writers. I feel compelled to pull out a Dickens classic or two from the shelves with this new insight and see them with new eyes.
I thoroughly enjoyed Smiley’s take on the life of Dickens. If you are a fan of Dickens as many are, this is a biography you will not want to miss out on. As of the date of this posting I have yet to read JAMES JOYCE so I have posted something from Penguin below.
In JAMES JOYCE, O’Brien chronicles the author’s early days as the rambunctious Jesuit school student, one of ten children, through his flight to Europe and the success, love and despair he would experience there, to his final, frustrated days as “a poor old man in a long overcoat, an eyepatch and a stick, stones in his pocket to keep off marauding dogs.”
Thanks to Penguin Books for putting biographies back in my TBR rotation, I have missed you. Next a gift for you. I have a copy of each biography to giveaway to two lucky visitors*. All you have to do is:
– leave a comment below
– share your favorite biography
– indicate which biography you would like win
* contest is open until Monday, December 5th at midnight