2012 is quite a year for anniversaries. One with which you may not be familiar is the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. To this day Dicken’s output remains popular and no fewer than five of his novels were voted into the nation’s top 100 best-loved books.
To mark this anniversary, a new edition of The Life of Charles Dickens has been published. It is a modern reworking of John Forster’s authorised biography of 1874 and is a sturdy volume with some 500 pages. Forster was a close friend and confidant of the author; the men dined and drank together which makes his biography both insightful and illuminating. It perhaps lacks the wit of Dickens’s own prose but what it lacks in panache, it makes up for in intrigue.
Dickens is widely revered for his florid descriptions of life in Victorian London’s underbelly. Some of his best-loved characters were thrust into Covent Garden, notably amongst the slums of St Giles but he also references other parts of our area in his oeuvre. His first published book, Sketches by Boz, gives the modern reader a sense of how life was for our Victorian counterparts; Monmouth Street and Seven Dials each get a dedicated chapter and all through the book, Covent Garden is never far away.
Both Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers take place around Lincoln’s Inn, the eponymous old curiosity shop was based on a business on Orange Street and the innocent Oliver Twist goes up before the beak at Bow Street. There should be little wonder that so much of the scenery for Dickens’s novels is Covent Garden, the author was himself a resident on genteel Wellington Street and in Bloomsbury, away from the mischief in shadows.
Forster’s biography, edited by Holly Furneaux, chronicles the life and times of Charles Dickens. As well as accounts of the written works, Forster examines sources of inspiration and recurring themes. The novels themselves will already be familiar to literary sorts but Dickens’s life may not be so. Although a resolute Londoner, Dickens also holidayed abroad at a time when it was beyond the average budget. Forster recounts adventures across Europe as well as two prolonged sojourns in North America.
Owing to his close association with the Dickenses, Forster had access, not only to the published works but also a lifetime of letters written by Dickens to his wife (whom he disliked) and his children. Excerpts from these enlighten the reader to the mindset of Dickens and what motivated his writing.
The tome is very richly illustrated; as well as portraits and bills, there are numerous sketches by Phiz, Cruikshank and other notable collaborators. While this is not a book for light reading, The Life of Charles Dickens would be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of anyone with an interest in the life of the man who revolutionised literature. The book is available for purchase from The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road for £30.
Review by Lorie Church