Sunday, June 1, 2008

Charisma, or historical fiction done cleverly

I have begun to think that the historical novel is a difficult genre to pull off. It requires much research on the part of the writer, especially when the novel deals with real people. If you have a character sitting on a couch with his wife on a sunny day, you need to make damn sure that 1. your charcter had a wife 2. couches existed during that time period 3. your character was of the correct socioeconomic bracket to have a couch and 4. it wasn't one of those freak years when there wasn't much of a summer.

Then, you have to make the people involved come to life. Your audience could go to any number of nonfiction books for a simple accounting a famous person's life. But those often leave out the big question of why, since it's something that can mostly only be speculated on. The Rag And Bone Shop, by Jeff Rackham, does a good job of making the characters sing. The book is about Charles Dickens, but he is almost more of a force in the lives of the three tellers of the story than a full-fledged character.

The plot is simple enough. The book is about Charles Dickens' affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Few hard facts are known about it, as they took such great care to keep it quiet. We hear the story from Dickens' friend, fellow writer Wilkie Collins; Dickens' devoted sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth; and Ellen herself. Fascinating, gothic characters lurk around the edges of the tale. There's Dickens' wife Catherine, who shuts herself up in her bedroom for days on end. There's Collins' girlfriend Caroline, with many names, many pasts, and a daughter she introduces as her niece. There's the creepy Joseph Clow, who lives among hundreds of guinea pigs and leaves poorly spelled poems (and one on occasion, a dead guinea pig) on Caroline's doorstep.

The three tellers of the tale are interesting in their own right. All three are very different from one another, in social standing and temperment, but their interests in the tale are the same. Each believes that they alone know the true Dickens who was at that point adored by an entire nation. Each believes themselves to be special to one who society venerates as being special. In this book about his life, Charles Dickens is not so much a character as a force, and as the the lens through which each views their own life. Yet, it provides enough detail that Dickens fans will enjoy it too. This one was worth the late fines!

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