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The World of Charles Dickens (1970)

de Angus Wilson

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A biography of Dickens, the 19th century novelist and social critic.
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The text of this book is a potted biography of Dickens together with a fairly detailed critical analysis of each of his main novels, discussing the conditions under which Dickens wrote them, the things he was trying to achieve and their individual strengths and weaknesses, to which Wilson of course brings both his sharp critical sense and his own practical experience of writing novels. It seems to be aimed at general readers and stays away from technical academic language, but it does rather assume that you have actually read all, or at least most of, the books (something that more recent literary biographers can rarely count on...).

Wilson clearly loves Dickens's work, and rates him as one of the major novelists of the century, up there with Dostoevsky, and he conveys his delight very well to the reader. But he finds plenty of flaws in the books too!

The pictures, which bulk the whole thing up to 300 large-format pages, are a fairly predictable mix of illustrations from Dickens's work, period cartoons and Victorian paintings. All the usual suspects are out in force: Cruikshank, Phiz, Gustave Doré, Frith, Augustus Egg, and so on. I should think about 10% were new to me, the rest is stuff you would find in any book about mid-Victorian Britain, or any British provincial art gallery for that matter. There are 40 pages in colour, which is fairly generous for the time, and in my copy the reproductions were mostly OK, but not of superb quality, and some of the engravings in particular were lacking detail (photographed from poor originals, probably).

To anyone used to the more recent interdisciplinary way of doing things, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there's no discussion of the pictures in the body of the text. Wilson wrote the text, and then the art-editor sourced suitable pictures and then plucked vaguely relevant phrases out of Wilson's text to serve as captions. To that extent it really feels coffee-tableish: you can leaf through it just looking at the pictures and ignoring the text, if you want — but you'd be missing the best bit. ( )
  thorold | Jul 31, 2020 |
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A biography of Dickens, the 19th century novelist and social critic.

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