Monday, December 31, 2012

Charles Dickens in Love by Robert Garnett


* * * * 1/2

The book's description from the publisher's website (Pegasus Books):

When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he was the best-known man in the English-speaking world—the preeminent Victorian celebrity, universally mourned as both a noble spirit and the greatest of novelists. Yet when the first person named in his will turned out to be an unknown woman named Ellen Ternan, only a handful of people had any idea who she was. Of his romance with Ellen, Dickens had written, “it belongs to my life and probably will only die out of the same with the proprietor,” and so it was—until his death she remained the most important person in his life.She was not the first woman who had fired his imagination. As a young man he had fallen deeply in love with a woman who “pervaded every chink and crevice” of his mind for three years, Maria Beadnell, and when she eventually jilted him he vowed that “I never can love any human creature but yourself.” A few years later he was stunned by the sudden death of his young sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, and worshiped her memory for the rest of his life. “I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed,” he declared, and when he died over thirty years later he was still wearing her ring.Charles Dickens has no rival as the most fertile creative imagination since William Shakespeare, and no one influenced his imagination more powerfully than these three women, his muses and teachers in the school of love. Using hundreds of primary sources, Charles Dickens in Love narrates the story of the most intense romances of Dickens’s life and shows how his novels both testify to his own strongest affections and serve as memorials to the young women he loved all too well, if not always wisely.

Prior to having read Charles Dickens in Love, I'd had minimal knowledge of Dickens. I knew next to nothing about the person he was, and of the writer I knew only that he was prolific and a staple of literary talent and productivity (I have only ever read Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol). I am very happy that despite my seeming lack of interest in and a glaring lack of knowledge about Charles Dickens, I decided to read Mr. Garnett's book. Charles Dickens in Love became to me a perfect invitation to enter the author's life through his novels. Dickens was a fascinating and complex person. A person for whom to live meant to love and love he did.

Now, I usually do not read biographies. But if they are written in a way Robert Garnett wrote his book, I may have made a mistake by avoiding this non-fiction genre. Garnett's writing is crisp, approachable and very friendly for a person new to Charles Dickens especially, but for all readers in general as well. I appreciated that I was allowed to draw my own conclusions as to Dickens's life, conduct and personality. Yes, it is clear that Mr. Garnett cares deeply about Charles Dickens and has a detailed and extensive knowledge about that author's body of work as well as his personal life. Garnett's hope that we, as readers, would also come to care is also present between the pages of Charles Dickens in Love. But never once did I get an impression that there was some scheme contrived by the author to portray Dickens in as becoming light as possible and leave all infamous deeds of his in the background. No. As a matter of fact, I felt only indignation and deep dislike towards Charles Dickens for his treatment of his wife, for his egocentric attitude and clear love of himself. However, as the story progressed, so did my feelings thaw and in the end, I hope I can think about Charles Dickens in a more objective light, always keeping in mind that life is never, ever black and white.

I am so impressed with Charles Dickens in Love, that I have designated 2013 to be my year of reading some of his novels. Robert Garnett weaved books such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Oliver Twist into the narrative of Dickens's life and his loves so neatly that I simply cannot put them out of my mind. One small piece of waning to some: if spoilers of any kind ruin books for you, be prepared that you will encounter them when reading Mr. Garnett's book. I didn't mind them at all. I feel that what I read about in Charles Dickens in Love will instead enrich my reading experience when approaching Dickens's masterpieces.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Charles Dickens in Love from Open Road Integrated Media via NetGalley.