Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he remains one of the most popular and widely read. It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor - more impressively - his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects (over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication): from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), mad king George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on 'The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment' and many others besides); but because, combined with these two talents, he was first and foremost an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller. As he said once in an interview with the UK's The Sunday Times in 1990, "The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You've got to make the reader want to know what's going to happen next, even if you're writing about something the outcome of which is well known."
This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet been accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert's only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonsuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while covering a range across Dickens' entire life, was itself thought as 'patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens's correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition' (p.1084, in the hardback edition of 'Dickens', by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 - i.e., a further 31 years' worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren't, until - with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection - was published in 2002.
Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert's style of writing - as always - is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author's psychology, personality - it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive - the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey's The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination is also particularly brilliant on this last clause), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) - well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens' novels is profound, and the way in which he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening to Dickens himself, as well as - of course - offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS ONLY FOR DEVOTED FANS/READERS OF DICKENS WHO MAY WISH TO READ OTHER WORTHWHILE BIOGRAPHIES AND STUDIES!
As you would expect, there are many highly recommendable ones available. The latest, of course, and currently regarded as the most definitive to date, is Michael Slater's Charles Dickens; Slater has been a scholar of Dickens for most of his life. It is noteworthy to say, in support of the justifiable claims by numerous academics, critics and other reviewers, of the definitive status of his biography, that Slater is not only Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck College London, but also, as his Yale University Press publisher cites, 'past President of the International Dickens Fellowship, and former editor of the most prestigious journal on Dickens Studies, The Dickensian; never mind the fact that he also found time to serve for many years as a Trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum, including several periods as Chairman. (So even if you question his the `definitive' status of his biography, you certainly can't question his devotion to the author!)
Meanwhile, there remains the continuously highly respected 1953 two-volume biog by Edgar Johnson - Charles Dickens His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 Vols., thereafter revised and abridged to one volume by Johnson, and published in 1977 by Penguin (Charles Dickens. (Given my love and admiration for Hibbert as scholar, biographer and eminently readable author, I think it is important to note that he himself refers to Johnson's study in his prefatory note to his own biography here, with the comment that 'I must express particular gratitude to Professor Edgar Johnson whose excellent two-volume biography has perhaps as strong a claim to be considered definitive as any life could have [...]'.)
Then there is Peter Ackroyd's genuinely unique take - by which I mean his occasional creative 'novelistic' forays in parts of his biography - in the edition cited above, which is thoroughly absorbing (Dickens, besides the first noteworthy biography published at first over three volumes between 1872 and 1874, by Dickens' long-term friend and literary agent, John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (Classic Reprint) and about which Ackroyd says in his own biography's Notes on Texts and Sources (edition cited above, p.1085), that 'Of course no biographer of Dickens can refrain from mentioning John Forster's Life of Dickens'. Importantly, too, there is G. K. Chesterton's wonderful, gracefully written and psychologically insightful Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Biography).
In addition to which, there are a number of outstanding, very worthwhile critical studies of Dickens, including: Carey's as cited above, besides a slim yet always insightful volume by Ackroyd Introduction to Dickens, the brilliant George Gissing's, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (Nonsuch Classics) (in fact one of a number of studies and articles Gissing wrote on Dickens), and, again, Michael Slater's own An Intelligent Person's Guide to Dickens (Intelligent Person's Guide Series).
However, while all of the other biographies (not studies, mind) cited above noteworthy and entirely meritorious, they are all massive in length and heavy as bricks, so rather unwieldy, to say the least (you'd likely damage your nose if you fell asleep reading any one of them in bed). And that's a final and also important point to make about Hibbert's biography of Dickens: my Book Club edition is just under 270 pages of actual text; while the whole book reprinted here by Palgrave Macmillan paperbacks, including References, Notes, Sources and a Foreword by the author, journalist and academic, John Sutherland, only totals 336 pages - a typical size of a paperback. So, for me, this biography remains the most accessible, easily read, insightful and shortest in form. In other words: your nose won't get damaged if you happen to fall asleep while reading it in bed. Which is nice!show more
by Rui Filipe Parreira