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The world of Dickens
If Charles Dickens was prolific during his lifetime, so have been his biographers. The latest book on Dickens, Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life, published to coincide with his 200 birth anniversary, is a no holds barred biography. She paints a picture of a man who was as brilliant as he was flawed. Forced to take up a job at the age of 15 and married at 24 - by which time he had already published Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers - Dickens was a larger than life figure. Though he had 10 children from his wife, he also had a mistress, Nelly Ternan, for most of his life. He could write at breakneck speed and in 1838 he was writing two novels at the same time. He was a heavy drinker and a cigar smoker from his teens. When he died prematurely at the age of 58, he was suffering from various ailments and at times could barely walk.
Tomalin's biography follows a long line of books on Dickens. The first was The Life of Charles Dickens : The Illustrated Edition by John Forster, Dickens' closest friend and handpicked biographer. The book relies on excerpts of letters written between Forster and Dickens and also rare photographs.
Perhaps the most exhaustive work on Dickens is Edgar Johnson's two-volume biography first published in the 1950s. It chronicles in details the events in Dickens' life as well as examines his work and offers analysis of his novels and characters. Fred Kaplans' Dickens is an equally solid work. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley's book on Dickens shares its title with Tomalin's and is possibly the most accessible biography.
There are other books that focus on different aspects of Dickens' life. Peter Ackroyd's Dickens: Private Life and Public Passion details the time and age that Dickens lived in and the massive transformations being wrought by the railways and the Industrial Revolution. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens looks at the writer's early life. In Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant, Christopher Hibbert explains how Dickens' personal experiences left their mark on his books. Michael Slater's Charles Dickens examines the less well-known writings of the author.
The soon to be released, Dickens and the Workhouse, by Ruth Richardson discovers that many of the famous characters and settings of Dickens' novels were based on real people and places. A workhouse near his house was the inspiration behind the famous workhouse in Oliver Twist. And Sam Weller of Pickwick Papers was probably based on a cobbler, Dan Weller, who lived opposite Dickens' house.
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