My thanks to Pen &Sword and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
Charles Dickens: Places and Objects of Interest acquaints us with different places and objects associated with Charles Dickens at different points in his life (childhood to his death) from homes he lived in to hotels he stayed at or places where delivered his readings, and objects like his desk or walking stick or even annotated manuscripts of his work, all of which were not only relevant in Dickens’ life but also influenced his works providing him settings and models for often more than one of his stories. In taking us on this journey of the different places, Kendall also gives us a sort of biography of Dickens—his life and work (which has continued to entertain and enthral readers over 150 years after the author’s death). The book comprises 110 short chapters, each focused on a place, object or characters, and each with photographs or sketches as the case may be of the place or thing as it is or (if it no longer exists) as it was.
Nearly everything that Dickens saw or experienced gave him material for his stories—the hardships he faced during his childhood (which saw one of the darkest periods of his life), when his father John Dickens, the inspiration for Wilkins Micawber, was financially hard up and had to face a stint in Marshalsea debtors prison, or Dickens himself having to work in a blacking factory at age 11—the houses he lived in at different points or even stayed at during visits, the people he observed, his views of the law formed during his days as a clerk to a lawyer and as a parliamentary reporter, even inns he stayed at or dined in, nearly everything is reflected in his work. Dickens’ characters (there are over 1500 of them) are what I most love in his books; each is well defined and (barring perhaps the heroes and heroines who might be a little bland) colourful, many with various shades. Many, perhaps most were inspired in some way or other by people he knew or knew of, and the book introduces us to many of these inspirations—some were familiar to me but I enjoyed learning of others like Miss Mary Pearson Strong who became aunt Betsey Trotwood.
Dickens approached his work with great intensity and we get glimpses of the level of effort he put into all he did from observations of his daughter Mamie (Mary) and others; for instance, trying out expressions of characters in front of a mirror before writing them up. His public readings which he became very well known for and for which tickets were often sold out also involved not only intense preparation but the actual process which saw him acting out the different parts required such complete immersion that it would take a toll on his health. Besides the readings which showed his acting skills, he was also involved in amateur theatre, and it was interesting to find out that he, with his family and friends put up amateur performances even touring different places.
For his writing, he also undertook trips for research, visiting for instance, the notorious slum, Jacob’s island for which he needed police protection, and even joining the Liverpool police for a day, something I didn’t think was so common during Dickens’ time. Another aspect I didn’t associate with his time was what we call ‘bookish merchandise’, but ‘Pickwick’ hats, gaiters and other merchandise were popular in their day and the characters’ names became popular names for pets. In fact, it was interesting to discover Claude Debussy wrote a composition dedicated to Pickwick too, while Jules Verne was a dedicated reader.
This is a book which fans of Dickens and those who’ve read a lot of his works would really enjoy as I did; but if you haven’t read a lot of his books, you might want to bear in mind that there are some spoilers in the author’s discussion of the books and characters. While I have read most of his full length works, I had only so far read one bio of him by Chesterton, so there were plenty of facts and information that were new to me; but, I can’t really comment on the novelty of the aspects discussed for those who know more than I do.
This was a well written and very enjoyable book, in which I learnt many new things about Dickens’ life and work, and also enjoyed all the different photographs and sketches included with each of the chapters. (Amongst the pictures, there are also Players cigarette cards of various characters—I’d always heard of cigarette cards but never seen any, so this was especial fun).
4.5 stars—highly recommended for anyone who enjoys Dickens.