Charles Dickens

Michael Slater

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A magnificent new biography of the man who gave us David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Ebenezer Scrooge

This long-awaited biography, twenty years after the last major account, uncovers Dickens the man through the profession in which he excelled. Drawing on a lifetime’s study of this prodigiously brilliant figure, Michael Slater explores the personal and emotional life, the high-profile public activities, the relentless travel, the charitable works, the amateur theatricals and the astonishing productivity. But the core focus is Dickens’ career as a writer and professional author, covering not only his big novels but also his phenomenal output of other writing--letters, journalism, shorter fiction, plays, verses, essays, writings for children, travel books, speeches, and scripts for his public readings, and the relationships among them.

Slater’s account, rooted in deep research but written with affection, clarity, and economy, illuminates the context of each of the great novels while locating the life of the author within the imagination that created them. It highlights Dickens’ boundless energy, his passion for order and fascination with disorder, his organizational genius, his deep concern for the poor and outrage at indifference towards them, his susceptibility towards young women, his love of Christmas and fairy tales, and his hatred of tyranny.

Richly and precisely illustrated with many rare images, this masterly work on the complete Dickens, man and writer, becomes the indispensable guide and companion to one of the greatest novelists in the language.

Michael Slater is Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck, past President of the International Dickens Fellowship, and former editor of its journal, The Dickensian. He served for many years as a Trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum, including several periods as Chairman. He lives in London.

“A magisterial exploration. . . . The breadth and acuity of Slater’s knowledge of Dickens is staggering, and yet the material is presented in an unpretentious, economical and compelling manner. This is a study which will enlighten every student of Dickens, and fascinate the general reader."—Paul Schlicke, University of Aberdeen

“No living person is a greater authority on the life and works of Charles Dickens than Michael Slater.”—Claire Tomalin

Michael Slater's new biography, Charles Dickens, is very comprehensive, meticulously researched and wonderfully written. The writing is very straight forward, explaining Dickens as he wanted to be explained, through his work. Despite being a Dickensian scholar, the writing is spare and economical with very little philosophizing that isn't rooted in supportable fact.   This is a very large work, but has to be, in order to encompass all that Dicken was. Dickens  was, by his own admission, an amazing man - not just a prolific writer, his inexhaustible energies were directed in a thousand different directions at once, making this biography, I would imagine, an extremely difficult one to write. The writer has succeeded in creating a marvelous and compelling look at an extraordinary man in the context of his work & times.  – Erick Barnum, bookseller, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT

"… Indispensable … [Slater] assembles a million accumulated details, minutely examining the genesis of each work … insights abound … He takes us compellingly through all the great shocks of Dickens’s life … but he doesn’t dwell on them … His quarry is the writing. The novels are the tip of a vast iceberg, and Slater introduces us to some miraculous pieces … [Dickens] is an incomparable portrait of the writing life of Dickens. Cumulatively, it is profoundly moving, chronicling the constant restless interaction between the life and work."
- Simon Callow, The Guardian

". . . Slater superbly showcases Dickens's fascination with London life as it developed during his early teenage years; how the stage beckoned a man who was temperamentally a great parodist; why social issues and a refusal to kowtow to authority came to dominate the author's aesthetic families. But it was his startling affair with young actress Ellen (Nelly) Lawless Ternan, a story concealed until the 1930s, which defined Dickens's later life as much as his punishing reading tours did. Overall, this best known of English authors after Shakespeare gains a scholarly, levelheaded and even affecting new illumination of his writing life."—Publishers Weekly

"[Dickens's] contemporaries were as bowled over by him as modern readers are, and it takes a book as brilliantly comprehensive as Michael Slater's new biography to bring him before us in  full. An eminent scholar of his subjects' work, Slater wisely puts the spotlight on Dickens as a writer of many forms: letters, notebooks, and copious uncollected journalism virtually sing out from these pages, providing intimate contact with a figure whose voice is still one of the most memorable of his, or any age."—Barnes & Noble Review (Editors' Picks for 2009)

"[If] you're looking for just one literary life to give as a gift in this holiday season, you won't go wrong by choosing Michael Slater's Charles Dickens. . . . Slater takes us through each of the works and their composition chronologically. It's a simple enough thing, but when you combine it with the author's broad knowledge of the subject, his era and his culture, then the career, the artist and the work conjoin in ways that make you see all three freshly."—Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

"One of the finest qualities of this biography is his skill at showing how closely involved Dickens's fiction was with the world in which he moved. In tracing Dickens's details back to their sources, Slater shows not just whence they came but also how they came together, as Dickens's pen, like the stick in a cloud of candy-floss, gathered the threads of ideas that were drifting in the air and wrapped them into the shape of a novel. It is a superb piece of literary detective work."—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The National Post (Canada) 

"Slater, a premier Dickens scholar, has produced an engrossing story of a writer at work. New even to devotees of Dickens biography are wonderful vignettes of Dickens the journalist, honing his knowledge of London by reporting on actual events and personalities that became wonderfully transmogrified into his baroque fiction."—The Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St.Paul), Holiday Books Guide

‘Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens…deserves a good billing, as it provides all that we will probably ever need to know about his subject.’

‘In many ways, this is an excellent book. It is clearly written, without rash speculation or amateur psychiatry. It is based on a thorough knowledge of relevant facts. The illustrations are copious, well chosen, and extremely well reproduced. Slater is very good at juxtaposing events or thoughts from different phases of Dickens’s life with surprising effect.’

"Slater, who has edited Dickens’s journalism, emphasizes the variety of his subject’s activities—the tireless writing, performing, and hosting. He refuses to speculate about Dickens’s personal life—whether, for instance, the young actress for whom he wrote off his twenty-two-year marriage actually became his mistress—but assiduously annotates the emotional background that gave rise to each text."—The New Yorker 

"Readers already familiar with Dickens’ history will welcome Slater’s in-depth focus on his work—the journalism, letters, lectures, plays and essays produced during a career that started in 1833, when Dickens published his first short story, and ended with his death nearly four decades later, in 1870. Slater also focuses on the author’s idiosyncrasies—his mania for organization, inclination for younger women and passion for social reform—and these richly explored traits add wonderful dimension to the narrative. As the reader soon realizes, there’s more to the man and his work than meets the eye, and Slater, who has written several authoritative books on his beloved subject, covers it all in this compelling biography."—Julie Hale, BookPage

“A once-in-a-generation biography and indispensable.” — Iain Finlayson, The Times

Charles Dickens is such an insight into Dickens the writer, with all that typical mixture of discipline and opportunism.” — Mary Kenny, The Tablet

‘This book is like a cake, rich with fruit, appropriately for Dickens a Christmas cake, which will keep and be sliced into for years; or maybe, as he saw it, “the layers of red and white in a side of streaky, well-cured bacon” – white for comedy – red for mortality.’ P. J. Kavanagh, The Tablet

‘You could say Dickens exemplifies a mid-19th-century culture of abundance, in literature as in life: abundance of miseries, evils, machinations, opportunities, comforts, wealth, all kinds of advances in public and private arenas, plots, comeuppances and emancipations. And Michael Slater’s huge new biography has a comparable abundance, of scholarship, adroitness and insight … It is a work of considerable cogency and finesse: the Dickens story has never been better told or more thoroughly investigated.’ — Patricia Craig, Irish Times

‘In this admirably objective feat of scholarship Professor Slater has carried out a word by word analysis of every line Dickens wrote. The result is brilliant in its insight … Slater untangles the DNA of the writer’s life and by knitting its sequences into the spiral of immense energy, observation and commitment provides an unmatched ladder of evidence to the plots and characters of the novels.’ Mary Leland, Irish Examiner

"Michael Slater's subtle and searching account of Dickens's life is a very welcome addition to Dickens studies. . . . Yale University Press has produced a handsome book, excellently illustrated."—Catherine Peters, Dickens Quarterly 

“[Dickens] remains in the forefront of our literary consciousness, as firmly fixed there as Chaucer and Shakespeare, his mentors in the creation of the unforgettable. . . . Slater’s imposing work has 'bicentennial' written all over it. It is academic biography at its weightiest, exhaustive, and meticulous . . . [and] the rewards are considerable.”--Edwin M. Yoder, Weekly Standard


“Insofar as any biography of a writer can be said to be a permanent contribution, Slater’s is.”--Alexandra Mullen, New Criterion


Charles Dickens as a whole is admirably paced…. The rhythmical alternation of diachronic and synchronic explorations gives the book its distinctive energy and character. The volume is handsomely produced and scrupulously documented and proofed…Charles Dickens is one of the very few landmark biographies of Dickens, and in some important respects it is the best we have.’ — Malcolm Andrews, The Dickensian

A "captivating biography." Michael Slater "seems to have consulted every scrap . . . that Dickens scribbled on in his 58 years, to produce exactly what the book's subtitle promises: "a life defined by writing." . . . Mr. Slater's dogged scholarship is surprisingly readable, in part because he often lets his subject speak for himself."—David Propson, The Wall Street Journal

"Magnificent....For anybody who wants to know more about this dynamo of Victorian letters, Michael Slater's superb biography is the one to read." —Michael Dirda, Washington Post

"Michael Slater clearly admires his subject. He has spent his adult life reading and thinking about Dickens and lecturing about his books at London University and elsewhere. He is a gifted and careful scholar who is on close terms not only with Dickens’ fiction, journalism, and correspondence, but also with the central events and attitudes of the Victorian age. The result is a book that is well written, clear headed, even keeled. Slater’s biography will stand now as Edgar Johnson’s once did—as the definitive narrative account of Dickens’ crowded career."—Brian Murray, First Things

'Meticulously researched and readable biography.' — Chandrahas Choudhury, (India)

“The literature about him is huge, but Michael Slater’s fat biography is a very good addition to it, wielding Charles Dickens work and his life rather better than has often been done before.”—The Sunday Telegraph

"The attention Mr. Slater gives to Dickens's less familiar writings—the short stories, journalism, and essays—is one of the things that distinguish his excellent biography. . . . An authoritative and engaging biography." —The Economist

"With the appearance of Michael Slater's extraordinary biography, which exhuberantly tracks the mercurial energy of Dickens's publication history—as well as his editing and his public readings—it is possible to be accurate to Dickens's wild originality, the career of his career. . . . This is a biography of a writer as writer. It is therefore quite unique."—Adam Thirlwell, The New Republic

“There may have been many lives of Dickens, so what makes Slater’s stand out? First, he has a matchless knowledge of all things Dickensian; second having edited four superbly informative volumes of his journalism, he is ideally equipped to enrich his biography by dipping into Dickens’ writings aside from the novels.”—John Carey, The Sunday Times

“The book, which also contains some unusual illustrations, is a thorough and engaging survey of a short but full-to-bursting life.”—The Good Book Guide

"Turning to the other major nineteenth-century novelist critical industry: Michael Slater's Charles Dickens now takes its place as the definitive modern one-volume biography. It is an especially valuable book for scholars, since Slater focuses more intensively and consistently than any previous writer on Dickens's literary career. Profiting from the competition of the Pilgrim Edition of the letters (2002), Slater attends to the entirety of that career, interweaving the serial production of the great novels with the author's journalistic and theatrical enterprises. While the familiar landmark events of the life are all there, from the blacking warehouse to the Ellen Ternan affair, it is Slater's detailed yet clarifying command of Dickens's literary work that make his book uniquely compelling."—Ian Duncan, Studies in English Literature

“….. [A] superb new biography by Slater….. [An] elegantly written and assiduously researched account…..Read it, then go back to the novels: you’ll be amazed.”—William Yeoman, West Weekend

“A lifetime’s study by the great Dickensian scholar gives the most complete portrait of Dickens as a professional writer.”—The Sunday Telegraph

"Michael Slater's wonderfully detailed biography of Charles Dickens has rightly been called magisterial. It presents a richly contextualized account of the author's life and work, illuminating the interconnectedness of Dickens's concurrent projects and providing new insights of a kind that would be unavailable to any less holistic account."—Holly Furneaux, Victorian Studies

"Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing is strongly recommended for students as well as scholars who lay stress on the interrelation in their research between Dickens’s hectic private life and fascinating professional activities and to readers who wish to explore the man behind the canonical artist."—Rudolf Nyari, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies

“…. [A] vast critical and biographical canon of Dickens….Strongly recommended for students as well as scholars….and to readers who wish to explore the man behind the canonical artist.”—Rudolf Nyári, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS)

“Michael Slater’s brilliant Charles Dickens (2009) is set fair to become the standard Life.”—Samantha Matthews, Times Literary Supplement

"Slater's account illuminates the context of each of the great novels while locating the life of the author within the imagination that created them." —Classic Feel

"Michael Slater has written the definitive biography of Charles Dickens."—Valerie Kennedy, English Studies

'This biography is a compelling read: beautifully written, meticulously researched and a major contribution to our understanding of one of the most important and troubled writers of the nineteenth century.' — Grace Moore, Australian Book Review

A sexy story resting on a bed of comprehensive scholarship and pursued with Sherlock-ian imagination.”—Kirkus (starred review)

“Anyone who cares about Dickens, or is interested in how literary reputations are made, will be fascinated by The Great Charles Dickens Scandal.”—Adam Kirsch, The Barnes and Noble Review 

“[Slater] avoids speculation and focuses on facts. Watching them pule up is one of his new book’s pleasures.”—Erie News-Times

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2009 in the Biography category, Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review
ISBN: 9780300170931
Publication Date: May 31, 2011
720 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
65 b/w; 2 16-page b/w inserts with 80 h/t