This is a terrific biography, everything one would expect from Claire Tomalin: thoroughly researched, immensely readable and judicious. It is well illustrated with photographs, engravings, annotated maps and brief details of the vast number of figures who will move through its pages. It is also well referenced so the curious reader can easily follow up details for further exploration.
To capture her subject fully-formed, she prefaces the book with an account of the newly but still precariously successful writer's intervention in the case of a poor slavey accused of murdering her new born child: her plight and experience is profoundly shocking and deeply moving. Dickens' determination to see justice done and very real financial and moral support given, is vivid and moving testimony to what was a lifelong commitment to the poor, downtrodden and unjustly treated. Many such stories could be told and there isn't space in a volume of this size to detail them all. But we certainly get a vivid picture of Dickens as a man deeply animated by a desire to improve the world he also entertains, and as a powerhouse of energy and obsessive activity: the account of his literary commitments at the end of his annus mirabilis (1836) is quite terrifying; his determination to keep writing and giving public readings at the end of his life even more so. (It is unsurprising that the last, moving photograph in the volume shows an exhausted man looking far older than his 58 or so years.)
Tomalin acknowledges his greatness as a writer: though seeing the dross amongst the annual Christmas stories and significant sections of some of the novels, the great works of Dickens' later years particularly (Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorritt, Great Expectations and so on) are given their due. And many amongst his enormous public would not have made the same literary assessment as we do now. We understand completely why he was so universally loved.
Yet this is not hagiography: she is not blind to Dickens' darker side. The author remains committed to the conclusions of her ground breaking study of the writer's long and obsessively secretive affair The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
whilst acknowledging the element of speculation and the controversial nature of some of her hypotheses. But what is not speculative is the account of his brutally insensitive treatment of his wife, which is as perverse as it is shocking: `The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying ... You want to avert your eyes from what happened in ... 1858'. Friends who unquestioningly took his part remained in the fold: those who took a more balanced view of Catherine (who had done no actual wrong) and of his behaviour were often cast away. His treatment of his children is at times bewildering: the creator of Dotheboys Hall is surprisingly eager to send his (often disappointing, in his eyes) boys away from home, not always ensuring their return for Christmas. Later, at the end of his life, he writes of the admittedly rather feckless Sydney, once more in financial difficulties, `I fear [he] is much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish he were honestly dead', and he casts his son adrift. `Once Dickens had drawn a line, he was pitiless', Tomalin writes.
Overall Tomalin's book is a triumph. It is a gripping and fascinating story, superbly told, which captures the greatness, the energy, the generosity, the humanity and its occasional contrary to create a sense of the tragic element in the arc of the life: here is a giant of the age and of British culture, deeply flawed but profoundly impressive. My only real complaint is regarding the commentary on the great novels themselves, which I wish was more thorough and extensive. Not everyone would of course, and many will find her thoughtful reflections on the ways the life lived illuminates the literary creations wholly satisfying. For me, she is such an astute judge of the life, that it seems a pity not to explore more fully the creations which justify its writing in the first place. For me, though she often asserts that Dickens is a very great writer, which he undoubtedly is, her comments leave a question as to why he is so regarded: some of her assessments seem bland and lacking in insight. However, the genesis of each is well covered. For more interesting and thorough commentary within a biographical approach I would recommend Michael Slater's Charles Dickens
Re the book as object: considering the cover price of 30.00, this is a disappointingly produced book. There is no dj but rather thin pictorial boards. The paper is adequate, though there is a degree of transparency I do not expect at this price. (Of course, most will have paid considerably less, and at the 13.50 I paid, as both object and read, the book is a bargain!)