By the age of twenty-four, Dickens had already been working for nine years. He had applied himself to every task with vigor, and through a mixture of indefatigable endeavor, talent, imagination, charm, and focus, he had succeeded at nearly everything he tried. Only his great passion for acting had been stymied: on the day of his audition as a professional actor, he had fallen ill with a cold. Publication, of course, and the huge success of Pickwick fixed his professional course, but he could never be said to have "failed" at acting—he came back to it over and over, in amateur theatricals and other performances, and always received excellent reviews. In addition, in this same period, he became friends with William Charles Macready, one of the greatest actors of the Victorian period, a man who did much to rehabilitate the plays of William Shakespeare from the corrupted versions common in the eighteenth century.

Foremost among Dickens's friends was John Forster, another literary bon vivant and another ambitious and self-made man. Dickens and Forster were close associates in every way for the rest of Dickens's life, in personal, artistic, and public affairs. Forster handled many of Dickens's business matters, was his artistic and editorial adviser on many projects, and at last wrote the first and in some ways the most exhaustive (though discreet) Dickens biography. There were plenty of other friends, mostly artists, authors, and other men of the artistic/public sort.

Dickens's own family was like an unsuccessful version of the Hogarth family. John Dickens was a skilled journalist, also of a convivial temperament, and considered to be a man of some charm. Of Elizabeth Dickens, too, it was said that she was vivacious and winning. But the elder Dickenses had led a life of such improvidence, marked by so many changes in circumstances, that Charles Dickens's attitude toward them, both together and individually, was at the very least extremely complex and in some ways a contrast to his general charitableness. In the early years of his marriage and professional success, he was tormented by the fecklessness as well as the importunities of his parents and his brothers. With success and marriage, he had separated himself from the life he had led with them (a life that he hardly ever spoke of), but he could not as easily separate himself from his relations themselves. He attempted to find them work, to find them places to live (sometimes at quite a distance), to keep them at arm's length, but he repeatedly found himself bailing them out of financial difficulties. This was especially true of his father, and Dickens often spoke of his parents with exasperation in letters to friends. Even so, for fifteen months, it seemed as though Charles and Catherine Dickens were especially favored in every way—Dickens was busy, rich, and popular. He knew at once and without being told how interconnected fame, money, influence, and artistic independence were, and he asserted himself almost immediately to sustain all four of them through hard work, aggressive business dealings, and self-promotion. And, of course, the exercise of genius.

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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