Before the mystery of Charles Dickens is addressed, can we take a moment to consider the even greater mystery of the author of this biography, A N Wilson? His rate of production is astounding. It is only months since I reviewed his excellent study of Prince Albert; two years earlier, his lengthy debunking examination of Charles Darwin was greeted by controversy; the year before that he produced an affectionate portrait of the Queen. In this period he has also published two novels, as well as pursuing journalistic and broadcasting endeavours.
He appears to employ no research assistants, and is known to be a chatty and sociable fellow, an amusing friend to many. He has family; he looks normal. So whence comes his supernaturally prolific power? Are there in fact two A N Wilsons lurking behind those evasive initials – one the recognisable front man, the other an enslaved alter ego who never leaves his desk?
Similar thoughts arise in the case of Dickens, whose phenomenal energies were ultimately suicidal – he died from a stroke at the age of 58, his health destroyed by a strenuous reading tour of the USA that he didn’t need or want to undertake. "I have no relief but in action," he wrote. "I am become incapable of rest." Quite what demon drove him to the brink when he had all the money and acclaim anyone could humanly want is one of the many mysteries explored in Wilson’s hugely enjoyable book – mysteries also including the source of his creative genius, the details of his relationship to his mistress Ellen Ternan, and the direction which his phantasmagorical novel Edwin Drood would have taken had he lived to complete it.
Nothing that emerges is strikingly original. Wilson is not one for ground-breaking archival scholarship.
But hats off – this is a wonderfully fresh and vivid account, fluently integrating life and work, teasingly constructed without being relentlessly chronological, and personally charged by an impassioned gratitude to Dickens that dates back to the imaginative solace his fiction offered when Wilson was a sensitive child incarcerated in a Dotheboys Hall prep school (chillingly described as ‘a concentration camp run by perverts’).
The leitmotif – surely somewhat of a cliche – is that Dickens was a "sick, divided soul". It is the darkness rather than the light in his personality and writing that is emphasised: Wilson paints a man who keeps secrets, hiding behind the masks and impersonations attendant on his infatuation with the theatre and withholding the truth "even from those who believed themselves to know him best".
The Daily Telegraph