A Long Trudge: Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens

There is, perhaps, little new to say about Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens (1990). Heavily promoted on release (along the lines of the ‘the great living novelist on the great novelist’), it was widely reviewed and polarising. It is often referenced as a landmark in biography, and yet it is now out of print. Or the original 1200 page volume is out of print; more recently Ackroyd released a new, abridged edition, as well as other books on Dickens. The original serves as the source of some streams still flowing out to us today.

As many lengthy tomes have done, the book took me through the gamut of reading experiences, from moments of insight and exhilaration to long trudges of boredom. That almost seems par for the course for biography, which in conveying the scope of a life, can’t help but bring in some of the drudgery – would be neglectful not to, perhaps. James Kincaid, reviewing it for the New York Times, writes, ‘Worst of all is that he won’t go away, droning on for so long that the reader may start to root for death to come to Dickens just to get it over with.’

The biography begins with a prologue describing Dickens’ corpse and the reaction to his death, but for the rest is conventionally chronological, taking us through each year and, indeed, most months of Dickens’ life, including the circumstances of the writing of all his novels and the ways the themes interacted with and reflected his life. Perhaps the harshest and most thorough critique of Ackroyd’s take on Dickens, that of John Sutherland in the London Review of Books, takes the issue of the opening of biographies as a fruitful point of contrast between Ackroyd’s approach and that of ‘real’ literary biographers—that is to say, academics. Kaplan’s biography of Dickens opens with Dickens burning all his letters, a scene which helps us realise that, ‘We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.’ Ackroyd’s mistake or hubris, according to Sutherland, is to ignore that fence and claim to know Dickens as one genius to another. Sutherland finds some key examples of Ackroyd overreaching and doing just this, as well as a telling passage in which Ackroyd is disparaging of academic conventions like footnotes. Ironically, Ackroyd is hardly speculative by the standard of popular biography, with its psychologising and mind-reading. It is also a well-researched biography by comparison to these. Ackroyd seems to have made two mistakes—writing a biography that resembles academic biography enough to invite judgement by academic standards (Kincaid writes that ‘the work seems unsure of its audience’); and to have overreached with some Dickensian flourishes (such as the descriptions in the prologue as well as the quaint interludes), when the substance of the book is not as ‘hubristic’ as these flourishes might suggest.

Ackroyd chose to eschew not only subheadings but chapter titles, only numbering chapters. Perhaps the desired effect is to make the biography appear more like a novel. The irony is that novelists, when writing anything approaching a fictional biography, will tend to at least borrow this apparatus from biographers and give the chapters titles. Biography is more difficult to give form to than a novel—it’s less focused, is far less plotted. With all its inevitable detours and somewhat loose ends, chapter titles and subheadings give readers some structure to make better sense of their reading experience. The details and chapters blur into one another so much more without this, and I think it a significant shortcoming for this biography—especially considering Ackroyd seems clear in his own mind about which period and topics each chapter covers. It is a very closely structured work, and yet Ackroyd doesn’t wish to give too much away by letting readers see the map of the long journey he is taking them on. (On a similar note, Kincaid’s review mentions how infrequently Ackroyd even informs us which year he is talking about.)

The seven fictional interludes are notorious and receive a lot of critical attention. Dickens appears as a fictional character in these short passages, talking to the biographer or to other literary figures. Perhaps they seemed transgressive or innovative in their time; they speak, of course, of the limits of the conventional biography form and the biographer’s attempt to bridge the gaps into the past. Yet for me, there are not enough of them to make the technique feel whole-hearted as part of the project.

This biography has its great fans and great detractors. I am neither. While seeing some of its merit, I’m disappointed by it as literature; for me, it didn’t soar or enchant.

 

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

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