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'Charles Dickens: His Life and Work' Review

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Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Charles Dickens drew from an early life of poverty, loneliness and exile to create the magic of fiction. In Charles Dickens: His Life and Work, Stephen Leacock captures that "agony of humiliation;" and, in the early pages of this biography, we see Dickens as a little boy, reading his tattered books. "In all the pictures drawn by Dickens of the pathos of neglected or suffering childhood," Leacock says, "there is none more poignant than the picture of Dickens himself."
Those early experiences, heartaches, and disappointments were later channeled into some of the greatest masterpieces in English literature. In reading the novels of Charles Dickens, we are thus introduced to the world: laughter, tears, loneliness, and depression--with the ecstasy of romance and the utter devastation of lost love. No wonder his novels became such bestsellers!

Reshaping Experiences Into Masterworks

Dickens draws us into the utter insanity of human experience. His characters are more real and more memorable than any possible reality. Leacock explains that the art of Dickens' novels lies in how he reshapes the aspects of human experiences. Dickens observed the best and worst of human life, and then turned those experiences into wit and wisdom. Beyond simply refashioning reality, he developed an identity for himself--through "that extraordinary magic by which he turns a cheat and a crook into a charming character, a criminal imposter into a thing of delight."
"No writer in the world's history has had so wide a public as Charles Dickens," Leacock says. Beyond the literary master, Dickens fashioned himself as a public figure and entertainer. His literary speaking tours were legendary--his passing was mourned by readers around the world. He also appears to have stretched himself too thin--driving himself to edit, write, speak, and tour--when he could have conserved his energies and given us many more (and greater) works of fiction and literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of Dickens that he had "too much talent for his genius" and that "it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest."
A Runaway Train...

This biography captures the ups and downs of the life and work of Charles Dickens, but Stephen Leacock also explores the "new world" that has been opened up to us with this extraordinary body of work. Perhaps, Dickens succeeded in opening "the windows to the soul" as he captured so much of the horrific realities of Victorian industrialism. Social reform was important to Dickens, as he worked to raise the social consciousness of his public through his articles and his fiction. In his fiction, he takes the edge off the darkest and most tragic moments with humor and sentimentality.

Although Dickens has been criticized by that memorable sentimentality, Leacock reminds us to take into account the time from which the great writer came. Dickens evolved from that little boy into one of the greatest writers in English literature. He captured the essence of the age, but he also represented a time that was passing away. "In due time," Leacock says, "it will be known that the works of Charles Dickens represent the highest reach of the world's imaginative literature."

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