Like many other famously beloved entertainers, Charles Dickens was something of a monster to his nearest and dearest. Having become England's most celebrated writer by the age of 29, he considered himself a force of nature and behaved accordingly. His parents embarrassed him so he buried them in a rural cottage. He went into frenzies of mourning for his teenage sister-in-law and treated his wife like a brood mare.
His manic-depressive moods were taken as holy writ by family and friends, who had to tiptoe around him or carouse according to his whim. Once, in a boisterous mood, he dragged a young woman into the sea ''while she was wearing her new and only silk dress.'' He was allowed such behavior because, by all accounts, he was irresistibly funny when he was in performance mode, which was most of the time.
The greatest writer of his age and a man whose life was rife with contradiction, Dickens is a perfect candidate for biography, and there have been many good ones. For scholarly purposes, the best is still Edgar Johnson's, published in 1952, but as a tour de force of the Higher Gossip, Peter Ackroyd's gargantuan effort (Dickens is 1,195 pages) takes the cake. Already a distinguished historical novelist (Hawksmoor, Chatterton), Ackroyd stalks his vast subject like an obsessed archaeologist. He examines every pebble of evidence, weighs it, worries over it, and since much of the evidence being sifted is Dickens' own eloquent words, the effect is almost that of a collaboration, an autobiography of Dickens annotated by Ackroyd.
Few books as long as this are flawless, and Ackroyd has his dull stretches, especially during the middle years. He is capable of offering horoscope-column truisms as psychological insights, as when he tells us that Dickens ''was an impatient person, quick to take offense, but a tendency towards self-pity and even petulance was curbed by his natural high spirits.'' Or, for sheer airy nullity, how about: ''Everything, in every age, is of a piece.''
But when he's snugged his thinking cap on tightly, Ackroyd can be a penetrating critic, as in his account of why the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop blew Victorian minds the way it did: ''In the death of Little Nell, there was a threnody for the gentler and more innocent part of themselves which in actual existence had to be discarded in the 'struggle' or the 'battle of life'. The Victorians wept over the very things they were destroying... Innocence has to be destroyed in order that civilisation may grow and prosper. In the same way, Dickens had to kill Little Nell.''
Readers not already familiar with Dickens' novels needn't be deterred, since Ackroyd is preeminently a good appreciator, able to make you imagine what you haven't yet read. Indeed, to enjoy this biography to the full, one should detour into the novels whenever Ackroyd's descriptions have made them seem irresistible. At that rate it might take a few years to read Ackroyd, but what happy years they'd be. A-