Dickens by Peter Ackroyd

Publisher: Sinclair-Stevenson Limited (London 1990) – Reviewed by Dr Noel Wallis.

Dickens’ birth, life & death…a gleaning from Peter Ackroyd’s book:
My wife and I recently spent a week at Caloundra on the Queensland Sunshine Coast, and on one day we were strolling along the main street looking at window displays. We came across an ‘Op Shop’, and in we went for a browse. There staring at me on one shelf was a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. I know there is a copy in the Society’s library, but I have never read it. I do have Ackroyd’s book Thames Sacred River, and I know he is an author of quality…so I bought it for $5. Apart from being just over 1,000 pages (I am still ploughing through the volume), it is a very heavy book to hold and read on these cold winter nights in a comfortable chair or in bed. Anyway, I have extracted a couple of excerpts on Charles Dickens’ life that I’m sure readers will appreciate.

HIS BIRTH: “Charles Dickens was born on the seventh of February 1812, the year of victory and the year of hardship. He came crying into the world in a small first-floor bedroom in an area known as New Town or Mile End, just on the outskirts of Portsmouth where his father, John Dickens, worked in the Naval Pay Office. His mother, Elizabeth, is reported to have claimed that she went to a ball on the night before his birth; but no ball is mentioned in the area for that particular evening and it is likely that this is one of the many apocryphal stories which sprung up around the birth and development of the great writer” (Chapter 1, page 1).

HIS DEATH: “They watched him through the night – Frank Beard, Georgina, his daughters – but he never stirred from his unconsciousness. Doctor Steele returned in the morning and observed that ‘there was unhappily no change in the symptoms, and stertorous breathing, which had commenced before, now continued’. He and Frank Beard advised that another doctor should be summoned and Charley, who himself had now arrived, sent a telegram to London: Mr Dickens very ill. Most urgent. But there was nothing now to be done. When Russell Reynolds arrived in answer to the urgent entreaty he said at once, on seeing him ‘He cannot live’. Ellen Ternan, summoned by Georgina, came that afternoon to be present at the side of the dying man. He lingered all that day, his breathing becoming louder. And then at five minutes before six o’clock in the evening his breathing suddenly diminished and he began to sob. Fifteen minutes later he heaved a deep sigh, a tear rose to his right eye and trickled down his cheek. He was dead. Charles Dickens had left the world” (Chapter 35, page 1079). Ackroyd adds to his pictorial record of Charles Dickens one photo captioned ‘Dickens after death’ by J.E.Millais’ – the great man looks as if he is sleeping. Such descriptive writing and visuals almost brought a tear to my eye!

HIS LIFE: Peter Ackroyd gives life to Dickens by including some anecdotes: “There were a lot of gentlemen with wooden legs in this naval port (Chatham) (it was, you might say, an occupational hazard) and this anecdote has all the hallmarks of some small intrigue between the servants ‘below stairs’. In fact, Dickens seems to have had something of an obsession with wooden legs – they pop up time and again in his fiction…” (Chapter 2, page 33).

HIS LIBRARY: I have expressed the thought in Boz in Oz 2016 that I cannot find reference to Dickens’ library, but Ackroyd states his father, John, had an extensive one, and names some of the titles: Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, The Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas and Robinson Crusoe – then there were The Arabian Nights and the Tales of the Genii. Also, John’s library contained Gulliver’s Travels and The Pilgrim’s Progress (Chapter 2, pages 44,45,47). Surely Charles Dickens would have read the books from his father’s library, and inherited them when John died!

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