A hundred and eighteen years after his death, only two biographies of Dickens stand out: John Forster's "official" biography (1872-74) and Edgar Johnson's monumental study, first published in 1952. Fred Kaplan's new work deservedly joins these two; he offers us the most fully achieved biography of Dickens to date.

Forster is a biographer's nightmare - cutting, pasting and liberally destroying invaluable manuscripts and letters bequeathed to him by Dickens - but his narrative remains powerfully moving. Lacking any semblance of balanced evaluation, Forster's "Life" will always have enormous value as a primary source from the man nominated by Dickens as his official biographer.Eighty years after Forster's "Life," Edgar Johnson's two-volume (1,158 page) account finally assimilated the vast amount of material by and about Dickens, forging a sustained, accurate and powerful history of the life of an English writer often ranked second only to Shakespeare.

Since 1952, several thousand new letters by Dickens have been found, and the biographical information about him has grown proportionately. Fred Kaplan capitalizes on these recent documents: He re-creates Dickens' life with superb narrative skill and brings to bear the most sophisticated perspective to date on an author he loves, understands, but also criticizes regularly and acutely, without malice, indeed with a remarkable warmth and understanding. Like Kate Dickens, who loved her father "for his faults," Kaplan manages to convey at once the greatness and the great weaknesses of his subject, establishing this work as a landmark in Dickens studies.

Kaplan has published a major biography of Carlyle, edited Dickens' "Memoranda Book" and written a full-length study on "Dickens and Mesmerism." Thoroughly immersed in Dickens and Victorian culture, Kaplan in his prose often rises to the level of Dickensian wit. Kaplan notes how regularly Dickens was imposed on for money by all of his family:

"Dickens' feared that his father's ghost lived in all his brothers. . . . Unlike Hamlet's father, this ghost always asked for money." The style is almost as droll as Dickens himself on a subject so raw he regularly reduced it to burlesque hilarity:

"My mother," Dickens wrote, "was left to me when my father died (I never had anything left to me but relations)." Senile and close to death, with poultices applied to "her poor head . . . the instant she saw me," Dickens writes with feigned surprise and delight, "she plucked up a spirit and asked me for `a pound.' "

The illustrations in Kaplan's book (107 in all) are lavish and arranged with great skill. From the earliest portrait of a youthful, almost Pre-Raphaelite, Dickens to the final picture of Dickens "dreaming about his characters," we witness a vivid progression and disintegration, an illuminating counterpoint to the verbal account of his growth and reluctant aging. ("What a great cemetery one walks through after 40," Dickens once remarked.)

Inevitably, a work as ambitious as Kaplan's has its fair share of flaws, from simple errors in proofreading to flat-out mistakes: Kaplan's claim that "in creating the first detective hero, Dickens originated the genre of detective fiction" is inaccurate; that distinction belongs to Poe, who 10 years earlier had introduced Dupin in two of his most famous detective fictions, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter."

Two broad objections. The closing section reads as if Kaplan were rushing to meet a deadline. In particular, he barely acknowledges Dickens' final, incomplete, but vitally important novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Second, although Kaplan carefully footnotes both primary and secondary sources, his wide range of knowledge is dependent upon many more works than he is able to squeeze into the notes. Johnson's more extensive, separate list of important secondary works serves as a model for what would be a welcome addition to future printings of Kaplan's text.

As Dickens' friend and mentor Carlyle once observed, "a well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one." Kaplan has devoted 10 years to preparing and writing this book; his achievement is as rare, as wonderful as the supremely talented Dickens he brings to life. We are all the fortunate beneficiaries of this exceptional biography.