on 23 October 2012
Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life
Unlike Peter Ackroyd's Dickens, which begins with Dickens's death at Gad's Hill in 1870, Claire Tomalin's book opens with an 1840 episode with Dickens as juror at a murder trial. The contrast between these two excellent biographies is thus set from the start: Ackroyd will be meticulously thorough and painstakingly detailed, while Tomalin's approach will tend to be more impressionistic. Strangely, Tomalin the biographer's book reads more like a novel than that of Ackroyd the novelist. While both biographies are crammed with fascinating detail, Tomalin, where possible, confines this to the notes at the end of the book. Ackroyd, too, is prolific with his notes, quotes and suggestions for further reading, but the sheer length of his book, not to mention the length of his chapters, is somewhat overwhelming: he provides the researcher with over 50 pages of Notes on Text and Sources. Tomalin is more economical and an easier read and she neatly divides her chapters into nice bite-size pieces.
I especially relished the way in which Tomalin interlaces penetrating criticism of the novels with Dickens's life at the time of writing. Of course Ackroyd does the same and equally well, as, for example with the relationship between the author's random opening of Tristram Shandy as a spur to the writing of Dombey and Son. But Tomalin embeds this episode in a chapter headed `Dombey, with Interruptions 1846-1848,' in which the novel seems to grow out of the author's life like an unruly plant against a background of Chartism, being attacked by a horse, attending the funeral of his publisher William Hall, writing to Thackeray and the setting up of his Home for Homeless Women. In fact the lively chapter headings throughout add greatly to the pleasure of the book, orientating the reader to time, place and action. Thus we have `A London Education 1822-1827,' `Blackguards and Brigands 1837-1839,' and for his relationship with Ellen Ternan, `The Bebelle Life.'
Perhaps the principal contrast between the two works lies their portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his wife. Catherine is treated more sympathetically by Tomalin, who lays stress on her isolation and the cruel treatment she stoically endured from her husband. Her clumsiness, domestic indolence and kitchen incompetence is played down, while Ackroyd seems to follow Dickens's lead in seeing her as a figure of fun. And where Ackroyd finds it `almost inconceivable' that Dickens had a full sexual relationship with young Ellen Ternan, Tomalin makes no bones about going into detail by quoting the words of those involved in the cover-up of an affair of complete intimacy. `We can never know,' says Ackroyd, and that is true, but we can believe those who did know (such as Katey Dickens and the Rev William Benham) and others who were wise to the secret and shielded their hero from discovery.
None of this of course has any bearing on our appreciation of the works. Ultimately what concerns us is not what an author is but what he produces and that in Dickens's case is almost always lively, insightful, entertaining. moving and tremendous fun.
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!)
This was a tremendously engagingly written biography. It puts across a great sense of Dickens's multiple interests, as author, editor, journalist, social reformer, public idol and many more. The receptions accorded him during his later public readings are like those now accorded to pop stars. At the same time, the author builds on her earlier work on the potentially scandalous secret relationship between Dickens and Ellen Ternan, which was denied for many decades after his death, though now it seems extremely difficult to gainsay the weight of evidence in its favour. The author varies in her coverage of the novels, with rather more description and analysis of the novels of the mid-period from Dombey and Son to Little Dorrit, but rather less for earlier and later ones, with the exception of Our Mutual Friend.
This is a much more readable biography than Peter Ackroyd's monumental 1144 page book that I read over a period of two and a half months in 2009. That was too detailed and both exhaustively and exhaustingly long winded, whereas Tomalin covers the many facets of Dickens's life and literary career very effectively in just over 400 pages. The book comes with useful lists of family members (a genealogy might have been useful) and associates, and places in London and Kent connected with his life. The hardback has lovely illustrations in the inside front and back covers and is an hardback with an illustrated cover but without a dust jacket, not often seen these days. In sum, for lots of reasons, a great reading experience. (Thanks for lending it to me, Ian!)
on 21 April 2012
In a way, I grew up with Dickens, as I was born in Rochester, the city which has become most closely associated with him (although he never actually lived there), and my father, an English teacher, was a keen Dickens enthusiast. He would often take us on excursions to places associated with the great man or his novels, especially when I was studying "Great Expectations" for O-Level. I was therefore already familiar with the broad outlines of Dickens's life story, although there was still a lot for me to learn, as I quickly realised from reading Claire Tomalin's book.
Obviously, there will not be room in a single volume to set out all the known facts about Dickens's life, and Ms Tomalin concentrates on a few key themes. The first is the influence, generally negative, of Dickens's parents, especially his father, and his upbringing. John Dickens, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, earned a salary which would have enabled him to live in middle-class comfort had he not suffered from a chronic inability to live within his means, something which led to his being imprisoned for debt. As a result Charles had to leave school and work for a time in a blacking factory until a legacy enabled his father's debts to be paid off.
Although the work in the blacking factory was not particularly onerous by the standards of early nineteenth century child labour, the young Dickens appears to have been scarred by the experience, which affected him in two ways. On the one hand, it left him with a deep sympathy for the poor and a concern for social justice, something reflected in most of his novels. On the other hand, his father's example also left him with an abiding distaste for both financial improvidence and snobbery. (John Dickens's fecklessness was rooted in a belief that he was a "gentleman" and had the right to live like one, even if he lacked the financial means). Profligacy seems to have been hereditary in the Dickens family, because several of the novelist's brothers, and all of his sons apart from the youngest, Henry, were also spendthrifts who ran up debts they were unable to pay. As a result, they looked for financial assistance to their successful brother or father, something which was a considerable source of family tensions.
Another key theme is Dickens's unhappy marriage. His very public separation from his wife Catherine caused a scandal at the time and caused him to become estranged from several former friends, including Thackeray and Mark Lemon. Although Dickens was far from being the only man of letters to have treated his wife badly (by comparison with Byron he looks like a pillar of matrimonial rectitude), this episode has remained notorious to this day, probably because of the contrast between Dickens's public and private personae. Dickens was the high priest of the Victorian Cult of the Family, the man whose writings, more than those of any other author, celebrated the joys of hearth and home; he even called the magazine he edited "Household Words". It therefore must have come as a shock to his readers to discover that this respected paterfamilias, the father of ten children, was deeply dissatisfied with his own marriage. (His relationships with his children were equally difficult as he regarded them all as a disappointment, again with the exception of Henry who won a scholarship to Cambridge and went on to a distinguished career in the law).
I have never really been able to understand, either from this book or anywhere else, just what Catherine had done to alienate her husband. Probably because she had not actually done anything; it was more likely yet another case of a middle-aged man making a fool of himself over a pretty young girl. The nature of Dickens's relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan has always been contentious. Ms Tomalin is firmly convinced that it was a sexual one, and even believes that Ellen may have borne Dickens an illegitimate son, but she fairly concedes that there is no hard evidence to prove this and that other recent biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, have concluded that the relationship remained platonic. Dickens seems to have been good at concealing his tracks when it came to sexual matters. There has been plenty of speculation, for example, about his relations with his sisters-in-law Mary and Georgina, to both of whom he seemed extremely attached, but there is no definite evidence of any impropriety having taken place.
Another running theme is Dickens's lifelong fascination with the theatre. He did not write much for the stage, for which we can be grateful, given that few early Victorian dramas have stood the test of time and that any serious attempt to make a career as a dramatist would probably have detracted from his work as a novelist. He did, however, seriously consider becoming a professional actor as a young man, counted leading actors such as William Macready among his friends and was a regular theatregoer. Towards the end of his life he was able to indulge his passion for acting by giving dramatic readings from his works. These were immensely popular and therefore immensely lucrative, at a time when he felt he had a large number of dependent relatives to support, which is why he concentrated so much upon them during this period. These reading tours around Britain, Ireland and America were, however, also extremely stressful, and there has been speculation that they exacerbated his health problems and led to his early death. They certainly led to a diminution in his once-prodigious work rate; after "Great Expectations" in 1861 he was only able to complete one further novel in his last nine years.
Some of the information was new to me, for example the fact that Dickens was an ardent Francophile and spent much of his time in France. (His Francophilia is not always apparent from his works, especially "A Tale of Two Cities"). Some of Ms Tomalin's emphases struck me as rather inappropriate, for example the stress laid upon Dickens's republicanism. While he might have expressed republican views in private he did not, as far as I am aware, criticise the monarchy publicly, and could be fulsome in his praise of Queen Victoria. When he had an opportunity to see a republican society at close hand, on his visit to America in 1842, he was not impressed; in fact, he loathed just about everything about the country. (He was, partially, to change his views on a later visit in the 1860s). On the other hand, Ms Tomalin appears to play down the influence of Dickens's religious beliefs; whenever she comes across some pious sentiment in his diary or letters she dismisses it with a comment along the lines of "Surely he didn't believe that?"
One thing Ms Tomalin does get right in my view is the balance between Dickens's life and his books Although this is primarily a biography, not a literary-critical study, some appreciation of a writer's works is always essential in literary biographies, and all the novels, and many of the short stories and novellas are treated in some depth. She can be quite a sharp critic- she has some fault to find with virtually all the novels, apart from "Great Expectations" which she describes as "almost perfect".
This was the second biography by Claire Tomalin I have read, the other being "The Unequalled Self" about Pepys. Like that book, this one is well-written and informative and a highly readable introduction to the life of its subject.
I've tried two Dickens biographies in the past and didn't finish them. I think my failure is down to the fact that I want to be entertained as well as informed. Many biographers forget this important element focusing almost entirely on the facts, just the facts. This method can and often does turn a life into a dusty lecture that you really don't need to attend.
Dickens "A Life" is hugely entertaining as well as being informative. Dickens' life was immensely complicated, always on the move, dozens of addresses, numerous and varied writing contracts, a complex personal life, and many children. This complexity could, unless dealt with deftly, turn this book into a marathon of facts and figures. I can assure you it does not; instead it remains a detailed, yet very human, portrait of a supremely complex, industrious and often difficult literary superstar. I never felt the need to "plough on" through the difficult or boring bits, because there weren't any that I can remember. His relationships with his family, friends and business partners are covered with particular care and attention to detail. His thoughts on social matters in general are well known but his changing attitude to Americans, after his first visit, was new to me and very interesting to learn.
Dickens "A Life" is wonderful popular history written in clear and easy to read language for the casual reader or seasoned biography buffs.
A Splendid read.
on 3 February 2014
This book provides a wealth of information about all important aspects of Dickens's life, and offers a balanced view of his achievements and his failings. The achievements are many: most obviously his novels, which include several that very many people would surely put at or near to the top of their list of favourite books; but also his extensive charitable work and, in the later part of his life, the public readings which were immensely popular with people from all walks of life. Tomalin has plenty to say about all these things, and I feel that she has got the balance right by providing lots of detail about his life, whilst offering relatively brief summaries and opinions, rather than extensive discussion, of his books. This balance works well for readers such as me who are familiar with the novels but less so with other aspects of his life.
The book is candid about Dickens's major failing: his bad treatment of his wife and most of his children. Although the bare bones of this are widely known, I hadn't appreciated before reading Tomalin's book just how wide was the gap between Dickens the public philanthropist and Dickens the privately selfish man. Ironically, I was reminded of one of his own characters: Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, who is obsessed with supporting good causes but neglects her husband and most of her children in the process. Did it occur to Dickens when he created this character that he shared the same trait? Throughout his life he devoted extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money to helping a wide variety of vulnerable people and worthy causes; but his own family might legitimately have thought (and after his death some of them eventually stated publicly) that some of this time, effort and money should have been devoted instead to them. Tomalin doesn't attempt to downplay this issue, despite her obvious admiration for many of his public achievements. After reading her book I found my view about Dickens somewhat altered: I continue to admire most of his novels, almost all of which I have read and re-read a good many times; but I also have to acknowledge that he was a premier league hypocrite whose treatment of his own family was every bit as bad as the behaviour of some of the unpleasant characters on whom he poured scorn in his novels.
This is a fine book from which I learnt a great deal about Dickens the man. I would recommend it to anyone who admires Dickens's novels and wants to learn more about their author.
on 17 December 2012
The only reason I didn't give this book a top rating is because too much of the story was in the foot notes instead of being in the body of the text. Very annoying to have to constantly refer to the back of the book for clarification. Also annoying were suppositions stated as near fact.
The actual biography is fascinating - the man was a major, international celebrity in his life time! Extraordinary when you consider there were no television appearances or tabloids to promote his work or 'image'. Everyone wanted to know him, and he was mobbed when he visited the U.S.
The man was obviously a genius. Reading about his family life was like reading one of his novels. How everything changed when he had his 'mid-life crisis' is shocking and sad.
Definitely worth a read.
The trouble with some biographies is the author presents such a plethora of facts that overwhelm the reader. Fortunately Claire Tomalin avoids this and she presents us with a brilliant and illuminating study of the life and work of Dickens. She writes with great enthusiasm for her subject - while not being totally uncritical of his writing.
Dickens is revealed as an exceptionally energetic character. After spending a whole day writing (and his output was prodigious) he then found time to play rowdy games with his children and have convivial evenings drinking with his friends. Despite having ten children with his wife he seemed to find truly affectionate relationships outside of marriage - whether with his friend John Forster or with his young sister-in-laws. I knew about Dickens doing public readings of his works but I hadn't realised just how many of these he did - and how they left him drained emotionally and physically.
Like many people of genius Dickens was full of contradictions. He complained about the lack of financial probity of his father but seemed to be quite a spendthrift himself. He showed genuine care and compassion people he tried to help but was ultimately callous and unfeeling to his own wife. He constantly clashed with his publishers - he felt that he did all the work while they made large profits.
But these perceived character defects pale into significance when we consider his body of work. It is his legacy of books like David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House that ensure that we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Charles Dickens - A Life is a terrific read from a superb biographer.
Claire Tomalin has produced a superbly researched and sourced biography of Charles Dickens with full references and acknowledgements. The book reads like a Dickens' novel. His life is replete with the influences that led to his writing output. 'Dickensian' is part of the English concept of Victorian living. It conjures up poverty, social injustice, gin-sodden lives with rags to riches opportunities. Claire Tomalin details the complex life of Dickens in great detail. It is remarkably concise with economy of words. Never a dull moment and never boring. We read Dickens (born 1812) had a privileged upbringing cut short by the exuberances of his father John who was committed to debtors' prison in Marshalsea, Southwark. Charles, age 12, was forced to work in a warehouse in Hungerford Stairs pasting labels on blacking 10 hours a day. The hours and observations of working conditions and sometimes cruelty clearly left it's mark. His later boarding with the Rylance family and working with the wealthy Crewe family gave Charles much of the background for his publications.
Initially publishing cliffhanger serial outputs, he used the pseudonym 'Boz' derived from his brother Augustus called Moses by Charles, then Boses, then (catarrh problems) Boz.
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer whose iconic prose has been written, translated, extended into film, TV series, musicals. His concern for social reform is well described by Claire Tomalin. His literary output was matched by his athletic and apparent sexual needs. He fathered ten children with wife Catherine Hogarth. Later, he found young actress Ellen Ternan whose relationship with Charles and the effects on his wife and family are profiled expertly by the author.
It is clear that Charles Dickens was more than a novelist. His contribution and fights for human rights were undertaken with effective subtlety. His visits to America may not have been to his liking, but he made his point with his readings and the inhumanity of slavery.
David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol are forever with us. Criticised for oversentimentality and implausibility (Henry James and Virginia Woolf) may be plausible but these characteristics add to the output of a great English novelist who describes the Victorian period in such graphic and memorable detail with situations and characters based on his observational interpretation. I read David Copperfield as a boy and it has always exemplified Dickens's characters. It made an impression never forgotten.
This may read as a verbose recommendation of Claire Tomalin's book but I cannot shorten the pleasure of reading it. She writes in such a caring and accurate way with pinpoint opinions (Dickens had a darker side as well). Thoughtful and professional. Shorter than the excellent Peter Ackroyd's biography and also complimentary to Chesterton's.
I have read all the impeccably written reviews here on Amazon and there is no point in my writing my long and detailed thoughts on Tomalin's book as everyone has already said it, and expressed it beautifully.
I sat down and read this book over a weekend, totally and utterly engrossed in the life of a flawed genius. His treatment of his wife is, for me, a real stain on his character and yet despite this awful behaviour, I forgive Dickens and I am trying to work out why when I have been less generous with other writers and their peccadilloes. I think it is because deep down I feel he was never happy. He always seems to be running and running, desperately hoping that true happiness would be just around the next corner but then when he turned it, nothing was there. His genius drove him to the heights of joy and the depths of despair (a friend of mine has said that she has always thought he was bi-polar which is certainly food for thought), but there seemed to be very little calm or tranquility in his life. He drove himself relentlessly until he wore himself out.
This biography by Claire Tomalin is my personal Book of the Year. I cannot think that I will read another between now and 31 December that will make me change my mind. I was totally engrossed in it, was unable to put it down, found myself living and breathing with Dickens and his family and friends, overtaken with excitement at the reports of his readings and the audience reaction, angry with him because of his selfish behaviour, and also filled with sadness at his constant striving for the happiness that eluded him.
If you read no other biography this year, next year or the year after, please make it this one. Quite, quite wonderful.