So, since ... gee, God knows how long, I've been reading Dickens by Peter Ackroyd. LibraryThing has a rather messed up entry on it. The reason for this is that there are three basic editions: a more than 1,000-page monster, an around 600-page abridged still-monster and a 200-page glossy coffee table book that probably shouldn't be considered the same work, IMO.

Because I consider myself a Dickens nerd, I scoured eBay for the 1,000-pager, eager to learn all there was to know. Granted, I knew Ackroyd had a belief about Dickens' life that I don't agree with, but more on that later. I also knew he read every Dickens work two or three times, as well as every bit of writing that could be found on Dickens. For that level of research itself, I wanted to see what Ackroyd had to offer.

In the end, while I'm glad I DID read it, overall it wasn't quite what I'd wanted out of such a massive Dickens biography.

I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, because it told everything known about Dickens' childhood. Since that time of his life is considered the most influential to his development as an artist, I really appreciated this. I also liked how the book talked extensively about the minor players in Dickens' life, such as John Forster. I've read a lot about Dickens but I've never seen a biographer really go into the personality of his best friend (and FIRST biographer) so stuff like that was very much appreciated.

The book kept up its good momentum through Dickens' early fame (even though hearing he wrote The Pickwick Papers when he was MY AGE depresses me to no end), but at around his midlife I was tearing my hair out from boredom and begging for his affair with Ellen Ternan (excuse me, NOT-AFFAIR) and after that happened I kept mentally going "Is he dead yet? Is he dead yet? Is he dead yet?" and I thought getting the abridged edition would have been a very, very, very smart idea.

See, the basic reason why I got this book was I've always been interested in the story of Charles Dickens' family, mostly because it is really kind of fucked up. Early in his life/career, after a really devastating crush, he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his publisher. Catherine and he had 10 children (plus miscarriages) but she was susceptible to postpartum depression and around after kid five or something, Catherine's sister Georgina moved in with the family basically to be the cook and hedgehog OTHER childcare agent. Years later, Dickens fell in love with a 17-year-old girl and left his wife, leaving her with nice alimony checks but taking with him 8 of the 9 kids that were left and also taking HER SISTER to continue being the hedgehog.

Okay, okay, nobody gets that joke except possibly me and [livejournal.com profile] i_am_your_spy (who may be just skimming this/not reading it at all for all I know) so I'll stop using it.

Now, we know Dickens didn't have sex with Georgina (because Georgina was always a virgin and we know this because APPARENTLY THEY CHECKED AAAARGH!!!) but she still stuck around with him over her own sister while Dickens was apparently out banging a 17-year-old OR if you follow Ackroyd's logic, had a chaste father-daughter-esque beautiful relationship (wut?) with a 17-year-old. Either way, the situation is messed up and thus I am totally fascinated and love to talk about it any chance I get.

Alas, Ackroyd decided it was far more interesting to talk ad nauseum about 1.) all the papers Dickens wrote about 2.) all the readings he did 3.) all the vacations he went on 4.) all the places he lived/rented out and how he moved from the place he lived to the place he rented out. Oh, and 5.) all the times he got sick.

To an extent, this was interesting. TO AN EXTENT. Some time ago, [livejournal.com profile] livinglaurel made a cool post on how the idea of the golden boy freelance writer is mostly a load of crap because most writers need a second, "real" job or need to overwork themselves to live solely by their pen. There's also an element of snobbery toward any journalistic writing, despite the fact that a lot of great writers were also journalists. So I do appreciate how Ackroyd goes into all the journalistic and reading work he did. It does give you a better scope of how Dickens lived his life on a day-to-day basis, and how hard he DID work to put food on his table and to support his craft. It also portrays him as a really horrible person to work with. ("Sure, I'll sign your contract. WTF? NO I DON'T LIKE IT I'M CHANGING IT RIGHT NOW WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE ENTITLED TO WHAT I OWE YOU? I AM CHARLES DICKENS, BITCH!")

But ... seriously, a little of this goes a long way. The vacations and the constant moving drove me crazy and really, while I like to learn about the writer's process, I do not need to know the house Dickens lived in when he wrote installment five of Bleak House or whatever. Although knowing that Ackroyd thought the ending of Barnaby Rudge sucks because Dickens recently had to get extra tissue on his butt removed without anesthetic during that time is a different story. (Albeit a very disgusting one.) I admire his need to get in everything he learned, but I question if, even as a Dickens geek, *I* really needed to learn all this.

And then there's the whole thing with Ellen Ternan, which Ackroyd says was chaste. Ackroyd's argument basically is two-pronged. The first rests on the notion that because there's a sizable amount of older man-younger woman relationships that have a familial element in Dickens' works, it's reasonable to assume that Dickens would want to do the same in his own life. However, it's sort of like that time in George Orwell's essay on Dickens where he talks about how Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers being all, "Mr. Pickwick, I will not marry my wife for as long as you need me," and George Orwell is all, "Yeah, WHAT-ever." In other words, there are two people in this relationship and I'm not sure what Ellen would have gotten out of this chaste relationship. Yeah, maybe money, but Ackroyd also guesses her sister didn't like Dickens that much and really while I am aware of men who were able to keep it in their pants to a crazy degree around that time period, some things are just beyond the realm of belief.

The other part of Ackroyd's argument is if they DID have sex, PEOPLE would not have accepted it. I can agree with that, given the influence of "Mrs. Grundy" (public opinion) and all, but I don't understand why these same PEOPLE would be okay with Dickens bombing around with a 17-year-old and talking about how much he loved her so long as they didn't actually have sex. Wouldn't the whole fact that he kind of threw his old wife under a metaphorical bus and trashed her to the press to be a paramour, even a chaste paramour of someone YOUNG ENOUGH TO BE HIS DAUGHTER kind of give you the heebie jeebies anyway? It kind of gives me the heebie jeebies; I'm just saying.

I also don't know if Ackroyd makes a good argument for Dickens being a misogynist. I definitely believe he had sexist leanings appropriate to his time, but that kind of looks aside all of the good friendships he had with women and how he was closer to his daughters than his sons. I'd just like all of the picture looked at, you know? That the whole Fagin controversy isn't covered also made me scratch my head.

Although I will go out on a limb and say I actually liked the short sort of fictional pieces Ackroyd inserted in. Yeah, it's a blatant grab to get a personal tie to Dickens (I talked with him in a dream! For serious! And then he talked with Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot!) and they're totally cracked out sometimes (like that weird fanfic carnival where David Copperfield and Pip had an arm-wrestling match), but THOSE VACATIONS WERE DRIVING ME CRAZY I HAD TO READ SOMETHING ELSE!

Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of great information in here, especially regarding Dickens thoughts on issues such as the Civil War and the Crimean War and his political views in general. I also liked some of the smaller stories and think I got a better picture of Dickens than I had before. So what I think is it's a great resource, if not a great read.

Of course, there's always ACTUAL Dickens for the latter. Maybe I'll read Nicolas Nickelby next. Or try to finally finish Our Mutual Friend, that monster ...
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