The Real Charles Dickens
The common view of Dickens is that he was a man of great compassion for the poor and the oppressed. He was. But he was also an angry and lecherous old man who dispatched his wife for an 18-year-old mistress and who loved the attention of fawning crowds:
“At the time of his death Dickens was at the pinnacle of his fame, adored by millions all over the world. But at the opening of this biography he is placed in a more furtive light as an ‘over-sexed’ and ‘whiskery’ little man whose arousal – it’s hinted – did for him. For the sake of respectability Dickens had to die at home, so this scenario has Nelly hiring a vehicle to carry her ill lover back to Gad’s, where his life ended the following day. Public veneration ensured his burial in Westminster Abbey.
“Freeing himself of the narrative path of chronology, Wilson begins with death linked to the mystery of the mistress, and then turns to five other mysteries: those of childhood, charity, marriage, public readings, and the last, unfinished novel from which this biography takes its title, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In place of the baggy, inclusive tome, here is a more shapely and original approach that invites a biographer to explore the truth at spots where life and work are known to converge.”
In other news: How art is helping researchers trace the history of food: “In Fruit Stall, a Baroque masterpiece by artist Frans Snyders, an impressive array of produce appears strewn across baskets and platters on a large wooden table. Some of the items on offer are instantly recognizable: Take, for instance, the green grapes overflowing from a large basket at the center of the table. But other goods, including a split-open green fruit dotted with black seeds, are less familiar to the modern eye. Plant geneticist Ive De Smet and art historian David Vergauwen studied Fruit Stall firsthand during a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg several years ago. While viewing the work, the pair realized that neither could identify some of the fruits depicted in the scene, De Smet tells CNN’s Kristen Rogers. Initially, the scientist theorized that Snyders, who specialized in still-life paintings featuring fruit, vegetables and animals, lacked talent. ‘But [Vergauwen] told me this was actually one of the best painters from the 17th century,’ says De Smet in a statement. ‘So, if that’s how the fruit was depicted, that’s how it should look.’ This discussion inspired the friends to embark on an unconventional research venture newly cataloged in the journal Trends in Plant Science. By combining modern plant genetics with centuries of still-life paintings, the researchers realized that they could create a visual timeline of produce domestication. Now, they hope to crowdsource a library of relevant artworks in order to analyze a wider breadth of sources.”
The common seaman in the great age of sailing: “Deep-sea sailors were not, as is sometimes suggested, the wretched poor but members of the skilled working class. Sailors tended to start their working lives young, even by 18th-century standards, and few of them took their formal education very far, but many if not most were literate, and not a few were self-educated. They read for pleasure, for profit and for self-improvement, since the ability to read, and especially to figure, opened up possibilities of advancement. Those who understood at least something of navigation and accounts might improve their rank and standing at sea. Those who were more or less at ease with writing might produce the memoirs that are Taylor’s richest source of evidence. Some suffered from ‘improving’ editors, but the best of them speak to us in their own authentic voices. They come from both warships and merchantmen, for Taylor’s period spans the ‘Great Wars’ against France, and many men served in both spheres in the course of their careers. More of them represent the navy, however, perhaps because their memories were more appealing to publishers or because the navy offered more opportunities to the lucky and ambitious. Overall they give a vivid sense of the variety of the seafaring life.”
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John Wilson reviews Greg Woolf’s The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History.
The Polish Goodfellas: “The King of Warsaw is the Polish version of Goodfellas. The first of Szczepan Twardoch’s novels to be translated into English, it follows a young man as he enters the world of Warsaw gangsters. It’s clear why this plot-heavy tale of Poland in the 1930s was a bestseller in Europe . . . Though it is told in the looming shadow of World War II, the story focuses on Warsaw’s lowlifes. If The King of Warsaw sometimes feels a bit too familiar, it is still an entertaining pulp read for summer.”
The failed fantasy writer who is a huge success: “Watching the numbers tick up on Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter is a remarkable way to pass the time. The fantasy author initially set out to raise $250,000 (£198,500) to release a 10th anniversary, leather-bound edition of his doorstopper novel, The Way of Kings. In less than 10 minutes, it became the most-funded publishing project of all time when it topped $1m. With 15 days still to go, he’s raised more than $5.6m. All this for a book that was just one of 13 Sanderson wrote before he’d even landed a publishing deal. Most writers have novels that never see the light of day. But 13? That’s serious dedication. The books were written over a decade while Sanderson was working as a night clerk at a hotel – a job chosen specifically because as long as he stayed awake, his bosses didn’t mind if he wrote between midnight and 5am. But publishers kept telling him that his epic fantasies were too long, that he should try being darker or ‘more like George RR Martin’ (it was the late 90s, and A Song of Ice and Fire was topping bestseller charts). His attempts to write grittier books were terrible, he says, so he became ‘kind of depressed’.”
Photo: Château de Châteauvieux