Michael Slater is an acknowledged authority on Dickens; his new biography is the distillation of quiet study and profound knowledge, above all knowledge of Dickens's writings. The book, indeed, is more an account of Dickens the author than Dickens the man. Slater has chosen to focus "primarily upon his career as a writer and professional author", drawing out of the shadows the "truly prodigious" body of "other writing" that Dickens was producing alongside his serialised novels — sometimes not under his own name, when he was dodging contractual obligations. "Dickens", the son of one his long-suffering publishers remarked, "was a clever man, but he was not an honest man."
Slater's focus is both very wide and very narrow. It does not exclude, but cuts down on the dramatic impact of, much of the usual biographical material. The well-known outlines of Dickens's life are there: the childhood in Chatham as the second of the eight children born to an improvident clerk in the Navy Pay Office, a child who read voraciously and felt himself "a not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". The shame of his father's imprisonment for debt, and of the period incarcerated in Warren's Blacking Warehouse, where, as a 12-year-old working a ten-hour day, he became adept at sticking labels on pots of paste-blacking. In grown-up life, however, success came early, with the publication of the Pickwick Papers in 1836. Dickens was a famous author from the age of 24.
Slater covers all the elements, but often assumes that his readers know the basics. He will, therefore, refer in passing to "famous" incidents, such as the "famous" bonfire of Dickens's correspondence at Gad's Hill, or Dickens's "famous" last encounter with Thackeray, where the uninitiated might have relished a little more dramatic detail. He deliberately eschews almost all psychological speculation, which proves remarkably refreshing: his spare, well-judged insights are coolly perceptive, but widely spaced.
Paradoxically, this approach is particularly effective at involving the reader during the period when most biographers strain to immerse themselves in Dickens's emotional life — in the description of the breakdown of Dickens's marriage.
In 1858, Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine, though he continued to live with his sister-in-law. During their 22 years of marriage, Catherine had borne him ten children and suffered a couple of miscarriages and periods of post-natal depression. She became stouter, and prone to what Dickens called "lassitude". He fell out of love with this middle-aged wife, who appears never to have ceased loving him, and, as so often happens, rewrote his own past to claim he had never loved her. (Pathetically, Catherine requested that his letters to her be preserved in the British Museum, "that all the world may know he loved me once".)
Dickens had also met a much younger, slimmer, livelier and more intelligent woman — though it is difficult to say whether he fell out of love with his wife because he met the 19-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, or into love with "Nellie" because he had fallen out of love with his wife.