The Mystery of Charles Dickens
Atlantic Books, $39.99 hb, 358 pp
This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.
This is obviously a question of deep importance to Wilson. At its root, he is asking, what is the secret of how Dickens affects him? To put it in my own personal terms, which this book forcefully elicits, what is it that makes me weep every time I read the account of the death of Jo in Bleak House, despite some misgivings (though only in one part of my brain) about his being taught the Lord’s Prayer as he dies? Or, to take a broader canvas, what makes me take the improbable story of Pip – exploited by a woman who has stopped time at the point she was jilted, and sustained by a fearsome transported convict who has made good in Australia (along with all the other unlikely characters and events of the novel) – as somehow totally real and as a profound reflection on childhood, class, shame, guilt, and, above all, love?