Charles Dickens, in the pantheon of English writers, is in lofty company, often having his name mentioned in the same breath as William Shakespeare. Everyone who knows anything about English literature (so about 15% of the U.S. population) at least knows his name. The references, tributes to, productions, and adaptations of his novella “A Christmas Carol” can surely be numbered as Abraham’s descendants.
So it is fitting that A. N. Wilson, biographer and Victorian expert extraordinaire, finally approaches the major literary figure of the Victorian age. Already under his belt are biographies of Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Dante and Hitler to name a few (and yes, I know Dante and Hitler aren’t Victorian persons). I have liked, or at least been somewhat interested, by my past readings of Wilson’s work. So it is with sadness I must say this one was a big dud for me.
I don’t mean to say “The Mystery of Charles Dickens” is an objectively bad book. It isn’t. But it isn’t really what the average reader is going to expect picking up something like this.
For starters, don’t bother reading this unless you are very familiar with most if not all of Dickens’ novels (which I am not). If this work started as a biography of Dickens, it quickly morphed into a literary analysis of Dickens’ works and posthumous psychoanalysis of the author. All his novels, from the famous “Oliver Twist” to the more obscure and unfinished “The Mystery of Edmund Drood,” are mined for their themes and possible relations to the thought life of their author. The references come hard, fast and without ceasing. So if you’ve never read any of them, most of this book will be acontextual mumbo jumbo.
Let’s say you are familiar with Dickens though, maybe even as familiar as Wilson is. What does “The Mystery of Charles Dickens” have for you then? Well, it’s not a chronological biography. The first mystery concerns the missing money in his pocket at death and attempts to prove he died at the home of his mistress and had his corpse moved to his own home. This launches into a discussion of his sex life and relationship with his wife and mother, though most of the evidence for his bad relations with them seems to be pulled from circumstantial evidence in his novels and not, you know, his life.
So that’s an odd start. It doesn’t get better. From what I can tell, the closest we get to a biography is the section concerning the public readings he did of his works almost up until his death. Since there is no Dickensian character who can show us an insight into his primal desire to read in public, we are instead simply told what happened in the order that it happened. It was a welcome break.
That is until we get to the part of the public readings where he started performing the scene from “Oliver Twist” where Nancy the prostitute is beaten to death in public (yes, you read that right). Then it’s off into Dickens’ obsession with criminal justice and Dickens’ desire to control women and animal magnetism and mesmerism, and A. N., please can we just talk about what Charles Dickens did in real life I’m begging you.
I genuinely have trouble remembering what each “mystery” is about because Wilson goes off on rabbit trails so often and so deeply that the rabbit trail seems to become the main road. I don’t know if the book actually spends more time psychoanalyzing Dickens through his works than it does describing what happened in his life, but I’ll be danged if I’m going to go back and count pages. And if I even think I would have to count pages to answer that question, you’ve lost me.
I would now talk about the writing style and other such reviewer things here but they’re beside the point. Yes, his writing is poetic. He obviously loves Dickens with all his heart and even says that his works were the only thing that let him survive his miserable boarding school experience (what is it with the English and abusive boarding schools?) But I just can’t recommend it.
Aaron Pauls is a service technician for McKinzie Pest Control.