There have been around ninety full-length lives of Dickens. As the 2012 bicentennial approaches the discriminating purchaser will be able to choose between three current frontrunners. Michael Slater’s 2009 biography, still going strong in paperback, is one. A ‘radically revised’ reissue of Peter Ackroyd’s 1990 biography is another. And, coming up fast on the outside track, we have Claire Tomalin. Each brings something distinctive to the task. Slater’s book is the distillation of fifty years’ rigorous scholarship. Ackroyd brings a novelist’s privileged insight to his subject. And Tomalin? She is a biographical big-game hunter, having already bagged Austen, Hardy, Pepys, Wollstonecraft and Mansfield. The shelf of prizes she has won testifies to her ability not just to write ‘lives’ but to bring the authors she writes about to life. Most nineteenth-century novelists hated the idea of too much being known about them. As Henry James put it: ‘My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter’ – a species of literary vermin anatomised in The Aspern Papers.

more from John Sutherland at Literary Review here.