The Penguin Lives series consists of short critical biographies of world-famous literary, intellectual, and political figures, commissioned from authors who are distinguished in their own right but not recognized "experts" on the subject in question. For example: Edmund White on Marcel Proust, Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc. The choice of biographer is not obvious—it may even be at first glance surprising—but it is intriguing, and based on some perceived affinity of temperament, vision, or cultural background between author and subject. The hope, obviously, is that a kind of chemical reaction between biographer and biographee will spark fresh illuminations of subjects who have already been exhaustively studied and written about.
In that respect few subjects offer a tougher challenge than Charles Dickens, with whom the novelist Jane Smiley has been paired. As she acknowledges at the outset of her book, his is "possibly the most amply documented literary sensibility in history." This is partly because he is arguably second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of English writers, and so has attracted almost as much critical and scholarly attention; but whereas, for historical reasons, comparatively few facts are known about Shakespeare, placing severe constraints on the biographical approach to his work, Dickens lived at the beginning of the Industrial Age, when information itself became industrialized—routinely recorded, reproduced, and (even when hidden) preserved on a vast scale for subsequent generations to discover. As Smiley observes, we know more about Dickens's life, especially his early life, than his own family did, because he concealed from them facts of which he was ashamed or that he found distressing to contemplate, but that were disinterred posthumously. Nevertheless, as Smiley also comments, there remains a paradoxical equivalence between Shakespeare and Dickens: for all the mass of information we have about the latter, the true nature of his character and genius is almost as mysterious as that of the former.