3 August 2012

Claire Tomalin: Charles Dickens: A Life (2011)

It seems appropriate to read a biography of Charles Dickens (1812–70) in this, the bicentenary of his birth, and although I've been familiar with a large number of biographical details about the writer, this is the first book-length biography I've so far tackled. And because I've therefore no measuring stick, it's impossible for me to say how well Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life (London: Viking, 2011) captures him, or what additional details about his life she must have unearthed.

But this is an absorbing book that held my attention all the way through, never flagging. Tomalin obviously greatly admires Dickens, but at the same time she can be critical: of his work (he's not very good on female characters, for instance, and of course he can get sentimental and uneven, etc); and of him as a person (such as his cruelty to his wife, his lies and deceit, and so on).

In these 400 pages (with over 100 more for the textual apparatus, etc, this is the trajectory of a an extraordinary man riddled by contradictions, a man of tremendous kindness and generosity, very concerned with social injustice,* a man whose fictional creations have left a permanent impression on countless millions of people, but whose great emotional and sexual passion created enormous problems for most people who knew him.

The first three quarters of the book take us from the feckless father John Dickens living beyond his means through to his adolescent son beginning work in a blacking factory near the Thames in London, then earning his way as a workaholic writer, marrying and becoming increasingly wealthy and famous, until the final quarter which sees him overcome by a kind of madness, a madness that causes him to leave his family, that loses him friends, and means he has an extra family to support, but in secret. Tomalin mentions that Peter Ackroyd, in Dickens (1990), says 'it seems almost inconceivable that [Ellen Ternan and Dicken's] was in any sense a "consummated" affair'. In Tomalin's biography, as in her The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990), it seems inconceivable that the affair – which Dickens had with a young woman who was exactly two and a half times his junior, and which lasted from the 1857 'Doncaster experience' when he met her until his death in 1870 – wasn't sexually consummated.

Occasionally I found an odd note in the writing – for instance, Tomalin writes about Caddy Jellyby in Bleak House being forced to work for her mother and is (therefore, I think we're supposed to understand) 'denied a natural, cheerful childhood'. Does this mean that a 'natural' childhood (whatever one of those is) is necessarily cheerful? And when she quotes from a letter Dickens wrote about the unhappiness of his marriage, supposedly reporting what his wife Catherine (before the break) had often said about their separating, Tomalin comments that the words sound like those made during a quarrel, and imagines Catherine saying  "'If things are so bad...' or 'If you dislike me so much – it might be better if we were to separate'." This is speculation verging on fictionalization, is clumsy, and doesn't belong in such a worthy book.

The final brief chapter, after Dickens's death, follows to their death a number of people involved with the author, and is in no small way concerned with the aftermath of the Dickens–Ternan affair. This is a vivid, and highly memorable book.

*Tomalin has suggested elsewhere that Dickens is particularly relevant today, now the gap between rich and poor is widening, and the post-World War II inroads that the Attlee government made towards social equity are being eroded.

The couch Dickens supposedly died on in his home at Gad's Hill Place, Higham, Kent, which is now a school.

Below are links to several posts I've made relating to Dickens.

Charles Dickens in London: London #13
Charles Dickens in Portsmouth, Hampshire
Charles Dickens and Characters in Marylebone Road, London
Charles Dickens in Kingston upon Hull
Charles Dickens Connections in Kensal Green Cemetery, London
Charles Dickens, Edward Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Charles Dickens and Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia: Literary London #8

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