As its title suggests, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley's newest book about her great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Dickens and His Circle, focuses less on the man himself than on the people around him. One might call it a biography of relationships, rather than a biography of a person. It's an interesting and helpful approach, broadening the usual picture we get of Dickens by giving a vivid portrait of his world and the people in it instead of simply retelling the major events of his life. Hawksley's preface suggests that writing her biography of Dickens's daughter Katey several years ago helped draw her attention to the different facets of her ancestor's personality and how they were brought out by his relationships: "Researching Dickens as a father -- and he was an indulgent and loving father, compared to most Victorian images of the paterfamilias -- was vastly different from studying Dickens the writer." Understanding this made Hawksley a perfect candidate to contribute a volume on Dickens to the National Portrait Gallery Companions series, all of which take a similar approach to their famous subjects (a complete list is available here).
So here, she offers brief but insightful sketches of various Dickens friends, family members, love interests, and colleagues, giving each of them his or her due as a subject, but also tying each one back to Dickens and letting them shed light on his character. Many of his fellow writers are featured here, including Thackeray, Carlyle, Longfellow, Irving, Poe, Gaskell, and Collins, as well as several famous actors and artists of the day. The book is copiously illustrated with portraits and landscapes, and full of excerpts of letters both to and from Dickens. Ultimately, in helping us comprehend him better as a person, it also helps us learn more about him as a writer (as a recent article by Hawksley about Dickens and women, tied to the release of the book, makes clear). For the Dickens fan, as well as for the reader or researcher interested in the prominent personalities of the Victorian era, the book is a must read.
(Review copy obtained from the publisher.)