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Charles Dickens: A Life Hardcover – 6 Oct 2011
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With Claire Tomalin as our guide, the life of Charles Dickens, 200 years after his birth, reads as newly minted as one of his novels (Sunday Express)
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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 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!)
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