WHAT WE SEE as central to the fiction we like, and probably because it is the crucial consideration of our own lives, is the statement with which Dickens in 1849 begins David Copperfield: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

Copperfield is the most autobiographical of Dickens' novels; indeed, it contains, word-for-word, passages Dickens wrote about his life for his friend and biographer, John Forster. And of course Dickens did know the answer: he would be a hero; he had sought self-determination and heroic stature, and he would see, in this carefully planned novel, that his champion--his David--would triumph too. He nevertheless began his book by alerting the reader of its monthly serial parts that "these pages must show" the success or failure of David Copperfield. It is as if his novel, very much addressed to certain trials in his life, is the acid test. The must in "must show" carries a double implication: that the reader ought to look to these pages to learn what issue is meant by must; and must also means that Dickens herewith sets himself the task of learning, or proving, who he has been.

Such double vision is typical of Dickens. It is, in fact, one of the keys to his greatness. The sentence I've pointed to occurs in Chapter 1, called "I Am Born." Dickens' first-person narrator offers himself to us as adult and infant at once. Dickens saw as child and grown-up simultaneously, and so do his characters. The fairy-tale world of magical transformations and perilous solitudes, the nightmare of abandonment (read "Hansel and Gretel" again), and the victimization of children in a cluttered, sordid London: these are the visions crowding Dickens' fiction, and he, and his most sensitive adult characters, are aware of them while their ordinary lives stream on.

Nightmare-in-pleasantry, past-in-present, the masklike nature of the apparently naked face--such doublenesses are not only Dickens' preoccupations, but the stuff of Sir Angus Wilson's fiction too. He brings to his editing of this invaluable volume not only a lifetime's scholarship--he has been deputy superintendent of the British Museum's Reading Room, an esteemed professor all over the world, the author of valued studies of Dickens, Kipling, Zola and Virginia Woolf--but also the double-vision demonstrated in 12 works of fiction, where past is alive in present, nightmare shudders through the daylight world, and the central motion of the novel or story can usually be summed up by "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life . . ."

This fine mating of editor to book is typical of The Portable Library, begun by Viking in 1943. It was Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner that brought readers back to that genius in 1946. While we've not been that far from the reverberations of Dickens--there are television and theatrical films, and of course the brilliant recent staging of Nicholas Nickleby; Dickens lives through remembered characters and quoted expressions in our daily language--it would be my expectation that this Portable Dickens will bring more devoted readers, but not recently of Dickens, back to the writer I would argue as the most diverse and memorable dramatic writer in English since Shakespeare.

The book is, first of all, a bargain, a long and solid lode. It contains all of Great Expectations, perhaps Dickens' most formally perfect novel. It contains extracts--many could live on their own--illustrating aspects of Dickens' work under sensible and useful headings: London; Crime, Murder and Pursuit; Humor; Theater; and so on. It offers a good chronology and bibliography, and an Introduction by Wilson that effortlessly gives us the life of the troubled man, and an examination of the works. For a reader returning to Dickens, or for one meeting him for the first time, this essay is particularly valuable.

Wilson from the start stresses how "Dickens grew up and yet kept his child's vision even after he had learned to mistrust it." The idea of volition here is fascinating, for it suggests a mature artist who doubts his easy strengths--the good ones all do, I think--and yet whose sense of his audience, and whose sense of what his work should achieve, causes him purposefully to protect what his inner-child cannot help but perceive, so as to be able to give his readers "the world of inanimate objects that live" (they are effigies, the terrors and delights of children) and "metaphors more powerful than the realities they embody."

Without embarking on long divagations about realism, Wilson makes it clear that while George Orwell, say, was right to love Dickens for his anger at social injustices, the expression of that anger is as unrealistic, as much a torrent of vision, language and feeling, as it is not a verbal photograph of the social ills which Dickens surely did hate. His London and his countryside, his fiction and his journalism, were great because made of great language--not because reality was only reproduced. Dickens, in other words, gave us not merely Victorian London in which children were imperiled, but, by setting a child quite brilliantly alone in its vastness and cruelties, he rendered London by writing, as Wilson says, "the boy's sense of lostness."

The Dickens praised by readers today is usually the dark one whose explorations of evil, and whose expressions of fear, solitariness and sexual tension cause us to see in him a psychological contemporary. Consider the schoolteacher, Bradley Headstone, plighting his troth in Our Mutual Friend by pounding his hand again and again on a grave marker, soothat the blood runs to accompany his words of love. Consider Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, as she wanders England with her enfeebled, parasitic grandfather, pursued by Quilp, whose pleasure is pinching and scaring women; she pauses by a river at night and sees the stars shining in the water "as when the dove beheld them gleaming through the swollen waters, upon the mountain tops down far below, and dead mankind, a million fathoms deep"--unless I am mistaken, those reflected stars become the staring eyes of "dead mankind." Consider Carker, of Dombey and Son, who is usually seen as a pair of teeth, insincerely smiling; here, he is killed by a train, after a dreadful guilty flight, in a scene very important to Tolstoy: he "was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill, that spun him round and round, and struck him limb from limb, and licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air." His final crime, it is important to say, was one of lust.

To represent so much of Dickens' dark vision, Wilson gives us in "The Black Side of Imagination" the drug dreams of Jack Jasper, from The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which he left half-finished at his death in 1870). This offering's grimness is reinforced by selections from the fiction and journalism that could justly be considered dark--the flight of Sikes, from Oliver Twist (Dostoevsky knew no better how to represent guilty terror than Dickens); Little Dorrit's Marshalsea Prison (from a novel in which all the world is seen as jail); and the delicious fright that Dickens never released from his boy's heart, as recalled by him in the essay, "Nurse's Stories."

Wilson also gives us the Dickens of Dickens' own--and, really, all--time, which demonstrates why his first readers loved him. There are selections of eccentric charm ("Mr. Pickwick in the Middle-Aged Lady's Bedroom"); deep humor (the Micawbers of Copperfield, modeled after Dickens' parents, and Mrs. Gamp of Martin Chuzzlewit); the mob-fear he shared with Shakespeare (riot scenes from Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities); the cife of oncern with education, the appetite for theater, the pity for the unprotected young that characterized crucial aspects of Victorian England.

Any anthology as rich as this one must spur the grateful reader to wish for his own favorites--the Autobiographical Fragment describing Dickens' three-month abandonment by his parents (his father was in debtors' prison) when he was a young child and when London was a frightful place for such as he; the corpse- fishing scenes of Our Mutual Friend; his essay on the Paris Morgue; a specimen of Dickens' revisions of his own fiction for the public readings he loved to give; something more (perhaps concerning Steerforth in Copperfield or Harthouse in Hard Times) on the relationship between class and sexuality.

But this is greed and willfulness. We have a desert island shipwreck's-worth of Dickens, a summerful, a semesterful, a transoceanic airplane journey's-worth; we have a full and useful, entertaining and instructive plum pudding of Dickens' work. It is brilliantly introduced and wisely selected. Readers of Dickens must own it, as students of Dickens will want to; those returning to Dickens, or reading him for the first time, will need to keep it near to hand. A superior novelist, dramatist, storywriter and critic, Sir Angus Wilson demonstrates with this edition that he is a world- class teacher. He, as well as Dickens, is the hero that these pages show.