Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he deservedly remains one of the most popular and widely read. His Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant is just one of the many proofs of his excellence as a biographer.
It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor – more impressively – his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects, with over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication: from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), King George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment, besides many others.
It is because, combined with these two talents, he was first an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller. As he said once in an interview with the UK’s The Sunday Times in 1990:
The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next, even if you’re writing about something the outcome of which is well known.
This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet become accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert’s only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonesuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while certainly covering a wide range across Dickens’ entire life, was itself thought of as ‘patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens’s correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition’ (page 1,084, in the hardback edition of Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 – i.e., a further 31 years’ worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren’t, until – with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection – was published in 2002.
Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert’s style of writing – as always – is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author’s psychology, personality – it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive – the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey’s The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is also particularly brilliant on these issues), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) – well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens’ novels is profound, and the way he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening about Dickens himself, as well as – of course – offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.