The best books about Dickens
From detailed biographies of Dickens to ground-breaking works of literary criticism, there have been hundreds of books published about Charles Dickens‘s life and work. Here are five of our favourites – five of the finest books about Dickens for the reader seeking to negotiate their way through the great novelist’s work.
Peter Ackroyd, Dickens: Abridged. This is still one of the best biographies – perhaps the best biography – of Charles Dickens out there. True, the biography written by Dickens’s friend John Forster and published shortly after Dickens’s death is a hugely important source of information about the novelist’s life, but Ackroyd’s detailed picture of Victorian England and Dickens’s development as, effectively, a chronicler of his time is gripping and absorbing. The full version of Ackroyd’s biography runs to over 1,000 pages, but is also recommended for the Dickens aficionado.
John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination. One of the finest critical studies of Dickens’s fiction, and probably the funniest ever written. First published in the early 1970s and written by one of the greatest living critics, John Carey’s The Violent Effigy examines Dickens’s work thematically, paying particular attention to the childlike worldview Dickens retained throughout his life. One of those books to read and reread for its wisdom, and its (laugh-out-loud) wit.
Humphry House, The Dickens World (Oxford Paperbacks). Published in 1941, House’s study of Dickens’s novels in their Victorian context was a groundbreaking work of historically-informed criticism, and is a valuable analysis of the various intersections between Dickens’s fiction and the period in which it was written.
Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life. A more recent biography, written by a leading biographer of other writers including Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Pepys. Tomalin is especially good on Dickens’s later years, including the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine and his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. Offers a nice complementary read alongside Ackroyd’s biography.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist. In this recent critical biography of Dickens, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst takes the innovative approach of focusing solely on Dickens’s early years and the beginning of his career, examining how Dickens’s failed attempts to become a stage actor fed into his writing, and how his apprenticeship as a journalist and reporter helped him to learn his distinctive style. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully and virtually every page of his biography yields a fabulous and astute critical insight into Dickens’s work.
Are there any really good and informative books about Charles Dickens that we’ve left off this list? What, for your money, is the best book about Dickens’s life and work?
Continue to explore the world of Charles Dickens with our discussion of his forgotten history book for children and our pick of his best novels.
Image: Charles Dickens, public domain.
I must disagree with at least one of your choices.
Michael Slater’s “Charles Dickens” from a few years ago is the best overall life of the lot written in the last twenty years. Slater uses Dickens’s journalism as a point of entry to many of the biographical details of his later life to great success. Slater is probably the world’s most renowned living Dickens expert.
If you want to read Tomalin, read her ground-breaking “The Invisible Woman,” which brought Ellen Ternan’s story out into the full light of day. Or read her bio of Thomas Hardy, better than her book on Dickens in just about every way.
“Becoming Dickens” is superb.
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Always a favorite!
Talent and a lovely💞💖 heart
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I did go to hear Clare Tomalin speak about her Dickens bio at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year and really enjoyed the talk. Bought the book, which is still in my pile along with a few of Dickens novels, which she inspired me to read.
I am currently reading Roald Dahl’s bio and I absolutely love it. Don’t ask me who wrote it but I found excerpts of it online and had to read it. When it arrived, I was a bit freaked out to find it is 600 pages long but it’s a great read. He was an incredible man who survived such incredible adversity. He is a real inspiration to me.