Read This: Charles Dickens (by Michael Slater)

charles-dickens-bio.jpgLast week, I had the opportunity to hear acclaimed Dickens biographer Michael Slater give a late morning lecture about “Dickens’ Shakespeare,” as part of the 92nd Street Y’s “Books and Bagels” series (which used to be known as “Biographers and Brunch”). It was a marvelous talk, in which we learned much about Dickens’ utter disregard for his hero’s biography, preferring to focus on the stories themselves, and frequently Slater would illustrate his theme by reading from Dickens—Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations, for example—with a flair for voices that rivalled Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend. (I was assured that the 92Y had recorded the audio from Slater’s talk, and I really hope they put at least one of these segments online.)

During the Q&A period, Slater described how he had first read Oliver Twist when he was ten years old, “and I was absolutely frightened to death. I didn’t find it funny at all; I found it terrifying.” But he didn’t shy away from reading more, all of which he pursued on his own: “Fortunately, I was never taught Dickens. It just never came up in school.” Even at Oxford, when he declared that he wanted to write a thesis on Dickens, they didn’t quite know what to make of him. What was the subject, somebody in the audience asked? “I’m not sure I can remember now,” he admitted. “The composition…? And reception…? of Charles Dickens’ The Chimes… Sounds gripping, doesn’t it?” (It actually did sound fairly interesting; apparently he went through newspapers from the period looking for the stories that Dickens used as source material for the second of his Christmas books.)

I confess that I haven’t had time to do more than dip into Charles Dickens, which we’ve actually had on our bookshelf for some time; but I did take a look as preparation for Slater’s lecture, and what I read was quite excellent: You could tell Slater knew his stuff, but he wasn’t being ostentatious about it, and he was still able to marshall all this information into the form of a compelling story. More years ago than I care to admit just now, I read Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, and I loved it, but a lot of information has come to light since then—Slater seems to have more than risen to the challenge, and I may just have to plunk this book into my carry-on bag on my next prolonged vacation, when I’ll have the time to properly devote myself to it.

28 April 2011 | read this |