Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

Abbeychurch – Charlotte Mary Yonge (1844)

 

Abbeychurch

Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was a highly popular and prolific author in the Victorian period whose work is now largely forgotten and hard to find in print. Her most notable work is “The Heir Of Radclyffe” from 1853. I discovered I could buy very cheaply off Amazon the mammoth complete works in a Delphi Classics Kindle edition. This contains all 53 (!) novels (so plenty of reading there then), together with her shorter fiction, plays and non-fiction. Yonge certainly stuck with this writing game for as well as all these publications she also edited a magazine “The Monthly Packet” for almost fifty years

Charlotte lived all her life in Otterbourne in Hampshire and was involved in a bustling village life and, inspired by her local vicar, in the Oxford Movement, which had High Church sympathies and developed into what we would refer to today as Anglo-Catholicism.

“Abbeychurch” is one of her earliest works published when she was barely in her twenties. The fictional town of Abbeychurch St Marys is in need of a new place of worship as the town is developing with more properties being built. The novel begins with preparations for the consecration of this new church.

Relations of the Reverend Woodbourne gather together for this celebration. The central characters are the three daughters from his first marriage, especially Lizzie, a live wire who pals up with her cousin Anne for many of the discussions that take place throughout the novel. The tone is light throughout, there’s a lot of chat between all the girls mostly about family but it also wanders off in directions that would not mean much to the average modern reader, on fictional characters and historical figures, at some length, for instance. There’s also an extended section about a parlour game which wouldn’t be hard for most modern readers to skip over. The girls’ love of chivalry leads them into making a decision which pits the more uncertain future of the town against the conservatism of the present.

Not a lot happens, in fact, although we get build-up to the consecration and analysis afterwards the actual event is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. Given the author’s strong beliefs perhaps she felt she could not do this momentous sober event justice with her rather fluttering set of lead characters. There is an unexpected fatality but nobody seems to take it that seriously.

This is a light, fluffy entertaining read which would be a good introduction to this author who I would imagine would have more substantial offerings amongst her work.

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Abbeychurch was first published in 1844. I read the Kindle Delphi Classics edition.

Two From Anthony Trollope – The Warden & Barchester Towers

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Strangely, before these I had not read any Anthony Trollope before but “The Warden” (1855) proved a good introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire.  It was actually a much lighter read than I was anticipating and also light on the pocket as it was a free book from Kindle.  To be fair, not a lot happens and if action is your bag you might think twice about this, but I have to say that not a lot happens very nicely.  Main character, Harding, is a vicar who alongside his other work is given an honorary post as warden at an alms hospital with a very healthy stipend.  A suitor of his daughter discovers that this was not the intention of the foundation who set the charity up.  It snowballs (slightly) from here with Trollope’s tongue in cheek look at honorary posts and the privileges of the Church of England together with the ramifications of challenging those.  It’s a perfect winter’s day novel, gentle, readable and with considerable charm.

“Barchester Towers” (1857) is a longer and more thoroughly plotted novel.  I did feel, however, that some of the simple charm of the first book was missing and it is more weighed down by the tale of intrigue amongst men of the cloth.  It picks up a couple of years after “The Warden”.  Vicar’s daughter Eleanor’s happy marriage at the end of the book is no more.  She is a widow and open to the attentions of others.  There are some new characters which add life and colour to the novel.  A new bishop, Proudie, and his formidable wife arrive to take up their (and it is very much their) appointment, bringing with them a chaplain, Mr Slope.  He is a man keen on plotting his way to the top by getting the better of the traditionalists sat in his way.  The Signora Neroni is Trollope’s best female character I have encountered to date.  She is the daughter of a cleric, forced back from his Italian retreat with family in tow, including Bertie Stanhope, the good-for-nothing son and his sister, The Signora, who is unable to walk and needs to be carried everywhere soon has the men of Barchester wrapped around her finger.  The characters stir and plot, the job of the warden comes up again, the status and advancement of the local clergy is central as is the question as to whether Eleanor will remarry.

I like both books very much but for different reasons.  “The Warden” for its readable charm but “Barchester Towers” is a rich, denser work and so I think it just has the edge.  A series which is getting better is very promising.

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There are free versions of both “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” available in e-book.  For those who want the real thing there are reasonably priced editions from Penguin, Oxford World Classics and Wordsworth amongst other publishers.