John Carey is a man of the left: When I attended his lectures on Milton at Oxford back in the mid-1970s, I sensed a radical fervor akin to that of Cromwell’s blind attack dog that made me vaguely consider signing up with the Cavaliers. Yet this stern and black-gowned individual was the same man who had written The Violent Effigy on Dickens’s fascination with corpses, coffins, waxworks, executions, and wooden legs, which still ranks as one of wittiest and most playful books written on the novelist.

Carey, who retired as Merton Professor of English in 2002 and continues to act as the lead reviewer in The Sunday Times, is a man of contrasts and inconsistencies. The year before assuming the most prestigious literary chair at Oxford, he wrote “Down with Dons” (1974), a scorching essay which accuses his fellow dons of living in a protected environment that stimulates “greed...


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