Charles Dickens at 200: A Dozen New Books on “the Inimitable”

Charles Dickens’s bicentenary‚ he was born on February 7, 1812‚ is the occasion for the release of a feast of books relating to the writer whom so many consider the emblem of Victorian England. Indeed, each work of new historical fiction blurbed as Dickensian simply reminds Dickens purists that he was truly the Inimitable‚ a nickname that Dickens enjoyed.

The most recent full biography, Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, was published last October and already reviewed in LJ, as was Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens (one of LJ‘s Best Books of 2011). The previous biography is Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens (2009), which explores Dickens’s writings in greater depth than does Tomalin’s. Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1991) seeks a Dickensian approach to its subject. Jane Smiley’s short 2002 study, Charles Dickens, has been reissued as a Penguin paperback, and frustratingly lacks an index.

In April, PBS will import new UK presentations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Ralph Fiennes is set to direct a film version of Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens for release in late 2012 or early 2013.

For a broader Collection Building piece extending from elementary school through adult reading, see Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens from School Library Journal. Additionally, Dickens aficionados should check the Dickens at 200 site set up by the Guardian, with an ever-evolving array of Dickens features, tours, videos, and discussions. They may also want to follow @Dickens2012 on Twitter. See also Media Editor Mike Rogers’s roundup of Dickens audio releases.

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Dickens, Charles. The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech. Cambridge Univ. (Cambridge Library Collection). Feb. 2012. c.286p. ISBN 9781108034401. pap. $48. LIT

This volume is comprised entirely of a high-resolution photographic reproduction, page by page and to the exact original scale, of Dickens’s autograph manuscript of his penultimate completed novel. After finishing a work, Dickens would bind the manuscript and present it to a friend, in this case Chauncey Hare Townshend, who bequeathed it to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. There is no editorial apparatus, no introduction or annotations, just the almost indecipherable scrawl of the man himself. The cover sadly is not a reproduction of the original boards; instead, it resembles a Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction catalog. VERDICT This will be manna for true Dickens afficionados and all who love exhibits of original literary manuscripts. (Cambridge University Press has also come out with new reprints of the novel’s original published parts, as well as of its first book edition.)

Dickens, Charles. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford Univ. Mar. 2012. c.584p. ed. by Jenny Hartley. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780199591411. $34.95. LIT

As Hartley (English literature, Roehampton Univ.) reminds us in her introduction, Dickens was not one for saving letters, but he was an active correspondent‚ and, naturally, others saved most of what he wrote. While selections of Dickens’s letters have been previously published, this is the first to derive from the British Academy’s 12-volume Pilgrim Edition (PE), which scrupulously presents 14,000 letters. Hartley has chosen 450 by which to demonstrate Dickens’s range as a letter writer as well as the progress of his work and the variety of his pursuits. She has reduced the PE’s commentary surrounding the letters, making them slightly less accessible to those new to Dickens. VERDICT Especially for readers who want to get close to Dickens and look over his shoulder without a biographer’s mediation, this is a thrilling perspective. All libraries should buy this as the definitive choice and as an incomparable presentation of the writer in all his spirit. And speaking of spirits, try making his potent recipe for punch!

Dickens, Charles (text) & Phiz (illus.). Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies by Edward Caswall. Oxford Univ. Mar. 2012. c.240p. illus. ISBN 9780199603282. $18.95. LIT

While The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist were overlapping each other in serial publication, the book Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1838) came out, followed later by Sketches of Young Couples (1840). Dickens’s authorship was only revealed after his death. They were commissioned by publishers Chapman and Hall to follow the success of Sketches of Young Ladies, by Quiz (a less-gifted author named Edward Caswall). Since Caswall’s collection began it all, it is included here. The Dickens sketches, averaging about five pages in length, are fun to read on their own terms and renew our appreciation of the sketch form by which Dickens moved so inimitably from nonfiction to fiction. They still resonate today (e.g., The Political Young Gentleman, who will declaim by the hour‚Ķnot that he has any particular information on the subject, and The Couple who Dote upon their Children, who recognize no dates but those connected with their births, accidents, illnesses, or remarkable deeds). VERDICT Recommended to Dickens completists and lovers of early Dickens.

on dickens

Fido, Martin. The World of Charles Dickens: The Life, Times and Works of the Great Victorian Novelist. Carlton, dist. by Sterling. Mar. 2012. 144p. illus. index. ISBN 9781847329431. $24.95. LIT

Fido has written many enjoyable go-to volumes for readers newer to the subjects covered (e.g., Oscar Wilde: An Illustrated Biography). This unrevised reprint of his 1997 book on Dickens remains an excellent overview, with more analysis than in other, oversize offerings in this roundup. Fido traces how readers’ understanding of Dickens has evolved since his death and how the academy’s critical stance changed as well. The chapter Race and Jews is not superseded by the newer general works here, which either avoid the issue or touch on it only briefly. A preponderance of illustrations from films, e.g., a color photo of Mark Lester in the musical Oliver!, seems odd in chapters that are about the books themselves. VERDICT Overall, definitely still a volume to turn to in order to meet Dickens.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated Edition. Sterling. 2011. 512p. ed. by Holly Furneaux. illus. index. ISBN 9781402772856. $45. LIT

This oversized book is a mixed breed. It’s heavy to heft for regular reading, yet it’s no mere coffee-table book. The main content‚ the first biography of Dickens, by his close friend and authorized biographer, Forster‚ is denser and more formal than many readers today may be used to. It has been invisibly abridged, so Dickens purists may be miffed. The book is designed with William Morris-Arts & Crafts elements throughout, a puzzling anachronism. As if understanding that Forster’s text on its own may have little appeal, Furneaux has added text-box selections of other scholarship as well as extended excerpts from Dickens’s writing. VERDICT Dickens newcomers and generalists who might prefer a more recent and accessible text should try Martin Fido’s The World of Charles Dickens (reviewed above) or Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s Charles Dickens (below) or a regular-sized, recent biography. Still, this is an attractive volume with myriad well-reproduced and instructive images.

Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: Dickens’ Bicentenary 1812‚ 2012; In Association with the Charles Dickens Museum, London. Insight Editions, dist. by PGW. 2011. 124p. index. ISBN 9781608870523. $39.99. LIT

This volume, combining the fun of a historical scrapbook with an eloquent and detailed overview of Dickens’s life and works, is by the great, great granddaughter of his son Henry. Cozy and welcoming though the oversize presentation is, this should not be mistaken for a simplistic book. Hawksley celebrates not only Dickens the novelist, but also the crusading journalist, reformer, and avid traveler, while also acknowledging the man who publicly left his wife, took the children with him, and had a clandestine affair with a much younger woman. None of this is new information, but it’s elegantly handled. Chronological chapters on the novels are interspersed with thematic ones such as Dickens and Detectives. VERDICT Unfortunately, owing to its removable facsimiles of Dickens ephemera, this book is better for gift giving than library circulation. Highly recommended to new and veteran Dickens fans.

Macaskill, Hilary. Charles Dickens at Home. Frances Lincoln, dist. by PGW. 2011. 144p. illus. index. ISBN 9780711232273. $40. LIT

This slim coffee-table book uses a combined chronological and thematic presentation of the places that Dickens called home, from birth to death, to present an accessible narrative of his life and works. The new color photographs by Graham Salter unfortunately have the look of blue-sky images from a travel brochure; there is nothing in them of the foggy, crowded, teeming world we think of as Dickensian‚ but the book’s secondary purpose is probably to tempt readers to literally follow Dickens around England and beyond. Travel writer Macaskill tells the story of Dickens’s life, from Portsmouth to Chatham to London to his long European visits (he loved Boulogne and Genoa), to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, and includes brief quotes from published primary and secondary sources. VERDICT For public libraries and high schools in need of an unchallenging introduction to Dickens.

Richardson, Ruth. Dickens & the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor. Oxford Univ. Apr. 2012. c.240p. illus. index. ISBN 9780199645886. $29.95. LIT

Medical historian Richardson (The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy) joined the cause to preserve a London building that had once been the Strand Union Workhouse in (as the British say) Cleveland Street. She made what she calls the remarkable finding that Dickens lived only a few doors away as a toddler and again in his late teens. Never mind that Dickens’s London addresses have long been known and that he placed the Oliver Twist workhouse 75 miles north of London (an area he had visited where there was a workhouse)‚ Richardson wants to make the case for this workhouse as the basis for the famous workhouse scenes in Oliver Twist. The possible connection has in fact saved the building from demolition. VERDICT It may not matter which real workhouse(s) inspired Dickens, but Richardson reveals Dickens’s passionate relationship with London, its urban poor, 19th-century parliamentary reforms, and the task of social crusading. For all readers interested in Dickens’s formative years and how he transformed experience into both narrative and action. They should also seek out Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens.

Walking guides

Clark, Peter. Dickens’s London. Haus, dist. by Consortium. (Armchair Traveller). Apr. 2012. 130p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781907973192. $19.95. LIT

Clark, an expert on Middle East studies and a notable translator of Arabic literature, packs years of learning and lore on Dickens into this slender book. Rather than prune much that is anecdotally a remove or two from the titular subject, the publishers have elected to diminish the font size of the text (quotes from Dickens appear in bold); many of you will need magnifiers to appreciate this rich and wondrously informative book. Begin it as an armchair traveler. Don’t be irked by the lack of conventional walking-guide graphics and details or by the small maps that don’t include street names. Should you end up in London with a yearning to follow Clark’s guidance, simply add a good London map to your kit. VERDICT Hidden here are riches beyond what more conventional London guides to Dickens cover. It’s like having your own bluff and delightfully expert British walking companion.

Jackson, Lee. Walking Dickens’ London. Shire. Feb. 2012. 136p. photogs. maps. index. ISBN 9780747811343. pap. $15.95. LIT

Many London walking guides have trailed the footsteps of Dickens or his characters. This one is easy in the hand, nicely illustrated, and clearly written. Jackson ( eschews the larger metropolis, with its ties to Dickens’s life, for eight walks within central London, thereby getting to the core of the city Dickens loved and its many representations and echoes in his books. Each walk, titled by the area covered, is described in about 15 pages, starting with basics such as where to begin, nearest tube station, walking time, and relevant opening hours. Jackson’s narratives then each elegantly combine historical, Dickensian, and present-day details, enhanced with fine old and new illustrations and one neighborhood map per walk. Readers can use the index to trace references to particular novels. VERDICT Recommended to all visiting London, even if they think they are just going there for the Olympics!


A Charles Dickens Devotional. Thomas Nelson. (Devotional Classics). 2012. c.214p. compiled by Jean Fischer. ISBN 9781400319541. $15.99. LIT

Thomas Nelson has launched its Devotional Classics series with A Jane Austen Devotional and this one, a superficial work in which Fischer, a veteran author of children’s books, presents 104 excerpts from Dickens’s fiction‚ these appearing on the verso‚ while right-hand pages contain three interpretive paragraphs by Fischer. She briefly offers literary and biographical context then turns to Old and New Testament references that she considers relevant to the Dickens passage. Her ruminations relate more to the religious texts she cites than to Dickens and indicate no sense whatsoever of Dickens’s irony, outrage, or humor. There are basic errors: writing about her selection from Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s darkest novel, Fischer confuses Dickens’s mistress with his wife. VERDICT Whether as a Christian devotional or as an introduction to Dickens, this simplistic book is not recommended.

Lewis, Linda M. Dickens, His Parables, and His Reader. Univ. of Missouri. 2011. c.320p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780826219473. $60. LIT

Lewis (English, Bethany Coll.) chronologically examines nine of Dickens’s novels to show that as readers we must bear in mind not simply Dickens’s own relative sense of Christian piety, but that his contemporary readers had absorbed the Bible since childhood and were likewise imbued with a religious grounding that Dickens took for granted. In particular, his novels make use of allegory and parable. From Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop (The Child as Christian Pilgrim) through Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend, Lewis keeps a sharp eye on Dickens’s narratives, as well as on the relevant approaches of other Dickens scholars. She notes motifs that echo devotional texts, showing that Dickens was a skilled manipulator not simply of his readers but of parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. VERDICT Recommended to all serious or intrepid Dickens devotees.

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Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.