Charles Dickens Bicentennial Picks, June 15, 2012

starred review starAllen, Michael. Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory. Oxford-Stockley: CreateSpace. 2011. c.310p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781463687908. pap. $39.95. LIT

It’s not easy to uncover additional primary-source details relating to Dickens’s much-examined life, but Allen, a Dickens expert retired from a library career, has done just that. The story of Dickens, sent as a boy to work in a blacking factory for about a year while his father, with the rest of his family, was housed in debtor’s prison, is legendary. It was a trauma that Dickens told only to close friend John Forster to be first revealed in Forster’s posthumous biography. As with some other historical moments, it is thanks to archived court records that scholars may still discover hidden truths. In this case, Allen’s study of Court of Chancery records clarifies details obscure from the start owing to Dickens’s faulty memory. Even bicentennial Dickens studies, including Callow’s (below), have not had these details right. James Lamert, the customary Dickens cousin held responsible for the boy’s labor in the factory, did not exist. Allen does not simply sort through names; he explores the alleyways and hidden stores and stories in Dickens’s fiction as well, enabling greater understanding of both the writer and the works. VERDICT This is not for Dickens generalists, but is essential for all who love Dickens down to the bone, and for all serious academic collections.—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

starred review starCallow, Simon. Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. Vintage: Random. Aug. 2012. c.384p. illus. index. ISBN 9780345803238. pap. $16. LIT

Of the several books published this year in honor of the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, this by Callow is in many ways the best because it has all the gusto that a popular biography of Dickens‚ a man who could do nothing by halves‚ should possess, along with the sound understanding of, and insight into, its subject’s life. Callow ( My Life in Pieces) is an actor with writing in his blood; Dickens was a writer who encountered the theater as one of his earliest and deepest loves. Dickens wrote for the theater with little success; his casts of characters and their memorable turns of phrase, the drama and comedy, went best into his fiction. Here is the life familiar to Dickens’s devoted readers, but expressed with marvelous brio and an instinctive recognition of this man who demonstrated an empathy for the urban unempowered while ruthlessly driving to maintain his own dominance and control in personal and professional terms. VERDICT The best biography for Dickens newcomers and a wonderful read for all .—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal