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Charles Dickens (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – May 13, 2002


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Two men who towered over the 19th century are the subjects of new Penguin Lives biographies coming in May. Novelist Jane Smiley's Charles Dickens aims to give a new perspective on the Victorian author, who, she says, was perhaps "the first true celebrity in the modern sense." Instead of giving a chronological account of his life, Smiley (The Age of Grief) presents the man as his contemporaries would have known him, addressing more intimate issues, like his painful childhood, only as they come up in his novels, and showing how he crafted his public persona as carefully as he did his literary creations. Smiley offers her own readings of many of his works. 5-city author tour. ( on sale May 13)
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Smiley, whose novels include the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, presents her new book as an attempt to see Dickens as his contemporaries would have, through his literary works. She does not completely limit herself to the works, also alluding to materials published from biographies. This entertaining and well-written volume follows his publications from 1833 to 1870 and provides a fair and balanced depiction of Dickens as the first modern celebrity. As a novelist, Smiley brings an interesting perspective to her analysis of how Dickens would have used his novel writing to explore his own personal issues. The result is not a biography or a work of literary criticism but rather a general reading of his novels and the events of his life. Recommended for general public and academic collections. Paolina Taglienti, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn, NY
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (May 13, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030774
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #414,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By M. A Newman VINE VOICE on January 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
For those who want to spend two weeks leaning about Dickens, Peter Ackroyd's book is really excellent. However if you do not have that kind of time, this work by Jane Smiley is excellent. Whoever marries the authors to the subjects should be commended. Jane Smiley is a best-selling author. Who better to write on the foremost novelist during the high noon of the novel as a medium?
This book provided an excellent overview not only of the life of Dickens, which can be summed up as "poor boy makes good," but also the novels themselves. I do not agree with some of Jane Smiley's criticism ("Pickwick Papers" is a good read, despite what she says), but by and large she is on target with a great deal of what she has to say.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By C. M Mills on April 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Jane Smiley is a leading contemporary novelist whose insight into the difficult arcane world of writing for profit is helpful in reviewing our greatest English novelist. As self-described Charles Dickens was the "inimitable." Dickens draws a broad stoke as his thousands of characters lie, cheat,[borrow], love, live and [end life] on the canvas of humanity.
As one who has read all the standard biographies of the 19th behemoth of literature that was Dickens I can highly recommend this excellent book.
Smiley provides a sketch of Dickens life including warts and all. Her dissection of the affair the middle aged author engaged in with actress Ellen Ternan was well done in looking at what may have motivated Dickens to break with his wife Catherine and thumb his nose at Victorian respectability.
Dickens is a mixture of good and bad with the humanity and essential goodness of the man on display.
This little book in the excellent Penguin Viking Biography series could be well used in an introductory course on Dickens, the nineteenth century English novel or on the art of literary biography.
Smiley made me smile and laugh as I explored the mind of a genius with this gifted biographer. It is the best biography I have so far read in this series.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwinghammer VINE VOICE on May 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
There's no doubt that Jane Smiley has read everything Dickens has written. Her point in writing this short biography is to do a critical analysis of Dickens's major works, adding personal information where appropriate. She also emphasizes the idea that Dickens was the first modern celebrity. When he decides to divorce his wife, with whom he'd had ten children, his readers are outraged. When he goes on a reading tour, people pack the various venues as if he were a modern rock star. We see him in action, acting out the murder scene in OLIVER TWIST with such passion that Smiley arrives at the conclusion that this probably killed him.
Smiley's professorial tone and syntax is a bit off-putting. Also, when she finally gets around to Dickens's affair with actress Ellen Ternan, she claims, due to Dickens's secretive nature, there's not much to tell. Was he a kind old uncle, offering a struggling actress his support, or was it true, as his daughter seemed to think, that they had children together? It's fun to try to match Dickens's fictional characters with real life persons. Was Estella in GREAT EXPECTATIONS Ellen Ternan, or was she Maria Beadnell, with whom he had an unrequited four-year relationship before he got married?
I would have liked to have seen some pictures of his children, all of whom seemed to be ne'er-do-wells, except for his son, Henry. DICKENS, the 1990 biography by Peter Ackroyd, seems to be a good bet if you want more about his social life. One result of reading the book was that I ran right out and bought OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, the last complete novel he wrote, which Smiley claims is a near-perfect novel.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Hugh Jardon on February 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've read about half the books in the Penguin series and I'd rate this at the top (other favorites are the bios of Leonardo da Vinci and James Joyce). It's only 207 pages long but there is no sense that anything important was left out. I hadn't realized that Dickens was such an astounding character--Ms. Smiley brings him to life with precise detail, through knowledge, and insights that DESERVE to be called insights. She's obviously an excellent writer herself and every page radiates her professionalism.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Ethan Cooper VINE VOICE on June 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This lively book provides an overview of the literary achievements and personal life of Charles Dickens. For those Amazon.com customers who, like me, don't know how to approach this writer's vast achievements, I provide this advice from Smiley, who is an intelligent, charming, and enthusiastic biographer: "But a newcomer to Dickens can do no better than to begin with a novel-my suggestions are David Copperfield, to be followed by Great Expectations, Dombey and Son, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend, in that order, light, dark, light, dark, light, a wonderful chiaroscuro of Dickens's most characteristic and accessible work." Bravo for Jane and her fun and concise treatment of an enormous subject!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Hope on September 3, 2012
Format: Paperback
Having decided to read all of Dickens' novels in order, I also wanted to read several of the many Dickens' biographies. So far I have read the first 5 of Dickens' novels, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each of them. I was an English major in college, and Dickens was not one of my favorite authors I was forced to read. But now almost 30 years later, I can safely say Dickens is my favorite author. I've only read a third of his works thus far, but I am really looking forward to finishing his entire canon.

I have already picked up Claire Tomalin's recent Dickens biography, and the newly reprinted John Forster's Life of Dickens. I didn't plan to read these until I had finished all of Dickens' novels, but then I saw Jane Smiley's Dickens A Life in the bookstore the other day, and I was intrigued that her study would focus on Dickens from a successful novelist's perspective. I read this book in 3 sittings, and was immediately hooked. Even though I had only read the first 5 of Dickens' novels, this biography was a great introduction into the mind of Dickens. Instead of slogging my way through dates and locations during Dickens storied career, Smiley skillfully relates Dickens' life experiences at the time of his writings. She offers what he may have gone through dealing with publishers, critics and readers in a most interesting way. I was fascinated by the way Dickens was considered the first celebrity of his time, much the same way movie stars are in today's climate. Her ability to relate what life may have been like for Dickens as his popularity grew as he juggled many hats as a writer, editor, playwright, actor and reviewer was very enlightening-perhaps this is why the cover shows a drawing of a hat. Dickens' books are wonderful, and his life was just as interesting.
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