Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Charles Dickens - Compassion and Contradiction by Karen Kenyon

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This is the opening line from one of Charles Dickens most famous books, A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens is considered one of the greatest novelists during the Victorian era. Almost all of his books are famous and has created unforgettable characters, whose names are used, still today, by artists and alike. He was considered a genius already in his life time. Numerous are the biographies written about him. A couple of years ago I readCharles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. An excellent, and detailed, account of his life, his work and his times. It is highly recommended. However, if you want to read a shorter account of his very active life, I can recommend Karen Kenyon's Charles Dickens: Compassion and Contradiction publish as an e-book by The Odyssey Press/Endeavour Press.

Karen Kenyon is an American teacher in writing and author of poetry, essays, interviews and travel articles. She has written a well researched, very compassionate, vivid account of the life, works and times of Charles Dickens. Nothing is missing. With compassion she takes us through his traumatic childhood, which was to stay with him all his life, and gave him his social conscience, always present in his literary work.  He was an avid walker, and walked for hours around London's poor areas, watching and noticing people around him and the life they led. Later on he visualised them in his novels.

His compassion led him to write news articles and he even created newspapers who dealt with many of the social problems of the day. Most of his life, he was under a lot of stress to complete his stories, often first printed as weekly instalments in the newspapers, before they were printed as a book. This was a new way of reaching out to the poor people, who could buy a paper, but could not afford books. He was immensely popular. Due to a very strict disciplin, which he kept all his life, there was nevertheless  time for his friends and people in need. He seems to have been working all the time.

So, where do the contradictions come in? One part of his life that he failed in, is his family. In 1836, 24 years old, and having already started writing the Pickwick Papers, he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle.  They were two different kind of people and with the years they became more estranged. Catherine's love for Dickens however, lasted a life time. His went away as the number of children grew! They had 10 children and somehow, it seems, he blamed Catherine for the number of children! Their family life was turbulent. Catherine suffered from depressions, and especially post natal depressions, of which Dickens had no understanding or patience. Most of their life Catherine's sisters lived with them to help her with the big family, of which she was not able to cope. Where Dickens had compassion and an interest to do good as concerned his friends and the poor people of the day, he had no compassion with his own family. In 1858 the couple separated, and most of the children stayed with Dickens. At this time he had also met Ellen Ternan, an actress, which he fell in love with. The art of their relationship is still somewhat unclear.

Dickens led a turbulent life in private as well as in his official role of the master, genius author. His involvement in the social problems of the day, gave him the base he needed in creating immortal characters and stories. Kenyon, takes us through Dickens literary life and weaves his private life, compassions and contradictions into it. It is a wonderful tale, of a unique character, who, with his charisma and pure energy, managed to live his life fully. Kenyon, successfully, tells his story with all the energy he himself put into his life. The biography almost feels like a roller coaster, where you follow him through the different parts of his life, almost without thinking or breathing. It is difficult to put down this book. A fascinating book about a fascinating character.

Thank you to The Odyssey Press/Endeavour Press for a review copy of the book. The views above are my personal ones.

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