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Why Charles Dickens was a genius – and a monster. By AN Wilson

Blog | By AN Wilson | Jun 25, 2020

Dickens by WP Frith (V&A)

The postwoman arrives in her jolly van with yet another jiffy bag.

Those who write books tend to be sent books,, so they tend to be a bit blasé about parcels. Still, in the tedium of lockdown, the arrival of the post is an event.

I open the jiffy, expecting a book by someone else and …it is a finished copy of my own book on Charles Dickens. I know I have written many books, but it never fails to be intensely exciting, this moment when the book on which one has laboured with such concentration has been turned into a finished object.

This book was in every sense a labour of love. I was not commissioned to write it. Seeing that the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death was coming up – June 9th, 2020 – I started to reread him, about two years ago.

My admiration for him, always strong, soared to new heights. Yet – the complexity of his character, the mystery of his achievement. How could so richly warm, funny, imaginative a being have also been such a total bastard?

Where did all that stuff in the books come from? How did he come, through the medium of pantomimic melodrama, grotesquerie, visionary stories which are not really novels in the sense that Trollope or George Eliot’s books are novels, both project and come to terms with his own inner demons, and in the process, confront the steel-hearted, violent, absurd nineteenth century with its own psychopathology?

That’s what I was writing about in this book.