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!)
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.
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.
on 6 February 2012
It's brave to write another biography of Dickens because so many have done it before, including his best friend John Forster, who was in the very best position to judge him at first hand. Even so, he's one of those writers who remains ever-fascinating, so we go looking for more.
Ms Tomalin's book is, in my view, just a little too detached: the many and varied characters in Dickens's life - and I'm not referring here to those that appear in his books - don't really take on a believable form, his wife Catherine being merely a child-bearing shadow forever by his side, and even Forster himself a casually sketched figure who never really springs to life.
I'd loved to have known more about the illustrators Cruickshank and Hablot-Browne, but like so many in this story they remain merely names on the page, not characters who live on in the memory.
There were three disclosures about Dickens that I found particularly interesting: the reference to his over-large tongue, which affected the way he spoke; his quite virulent dislike of America and Americans, an attitude which softened in later life; and the way he could shift from extreme geniality to cold silence for no apparent reason. I also found it interesting that others perceived him to be small in stature (though I gather he was 5ft 10ins) with a tendency to try to 'talk as though he were six feet'.
Having said all that, the book is worth reading if only to reinforce what we already know about the inimitable 'Boz', but I am still left feeling that it fell short in many key areas. Ms Tomalin gave us the facts in readable form, but failed to provide much by way of further illumination.
This is a Claire Tomlin biography, ergo it is brilliant, it is revealing, it is well-researched and it is beautifully constructed.
For those who want unsensatonal but constantly interesting biographies she is the master! I would recomend any of her books, but in particularly those on Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy (the latter accompanied by a beautiful little poetry anthology selected by Ms. Tomlin).
It was obvious that the author really was in love with her earlier subjects, but her relationship with Dickens is altogether more ambiguous. She is clearly an admirer of (much of, but not all) his work, of his unremitting energy, of his good humour and of so much that went into his life, his writing and his performing. However Dickens did have his dark side, notably in his family realationships (particularly in his apparently appalling treatment of his wife) and this aspect of his life is by no means avoided.
I do have some qualms: Claire Tomlin does seems to have problems analysing any of the novels without judging them primarily on the strength or otherwise of the female characters. Its a reasonable way to approach an analysis, but it tends to rather dominate. I do think that is somewhat unfair to her subject. With the exception of a very few (Mary Wolstencroft, the subject of another excellent Tomlin biography), most 19th Century readers simply would not have recognised the issue as an issue. Claire Tomlin is expecting 21st Century standards from 19th Century people. Its like expecting an anti-slavery stance from an artist working in the Roman Empire!
A very small criticism, not worth dropping even half a star for. Buy,read,enjoy, and then go back to the Dickens novels. (I'm enjoying Bleak House again..a masterpiece)
This is very much in the mould of Claire Tomalin's biographies: very detailed and well-researched yet highly readable, revealing with honesty, empathy and wry humour the complexity of Dickens's personality, warts and all.
We gain a sense of the huge, perhaps manic, energy which made him so prolific a writer, known to work on two great novels at the same time. Walking for miles most days gave him time to observe people and to form ideas. Tomalin tells us that he needed to pace the streets - the limited scope of the Swiss countryside (despite its beauty!) only frustrated him. It is a shock to realise that he died in his late fifties - probably at least partly as a result of the smoking and heavy drinking which must also have contributed to his outbursts of explosive anger and emotion.
I was impressed by his precocious determination to overcome adversity. Forced when barely in his teens to leave the school where he excelled to work in a blacking factory because his father was in jail for debt, Dickens divided his meagre weekly earnings into seven piles, to make sure he did not overspend. Despite the lack of a university education and disrupted schooling, this clearly very intelligent young man rapidly became a self-made success, as first a journalist and then an exceptionally popular author. His charisma and dramatic skills (he wanted initially to be an actor) assisted him in promoting his work through his readings - the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes was a possibly overdone favourite theme.
The author shows how Dickens made positive use of every aspect of his life in his writing. His childhood in Kent gave him a great love for that area, and became the setting for "Great Expectations" which Tomalin regards as in some ways his most "perfect book". His father's chronic debt helped shape the attitudes of Mr Micawber, but also scenes for Little Dorrit set in the Marshalsea Prison.
Tomalin describes how he produced his stories largely in monthly episodes, which required remarkably little rewriting, although his approach may account for some of the overwrought and "hammy" passages in his books, which she freely acknowledges, together with his rather bland female characters. It seems that he followed an overall plan, particularly in the later works.
Although sociable and gregarious, which might suggest easy-going, Dickens was a man of strong principles in certain respects. He was a staunch republican - one reason why he admired the French so much - and gave many readings of his works to highlight the parlous conditions of the poor.
Of course, one area in which his morality fell short was in his callous treatment of his long-suffering but probably rather dull wife. He may have married too young, settling for safe domesticity after the failure of a passionate love affair. However, in successful middle age he embarked on his long relationship with the actress Nelly Tiernan, covered so well in another of Tomalin's biographies. The enforced secrecy of this liaison may have added to some of its appeal. I was also intrigued to learn of the strong friendship between Dickens and his sister-in-law, which Tomalin believes to have been platonic on his side, one of blind loyalty and admiration on hers.
As further evidence of his capricious and unpredictable emotional responses, we learn how Dickens was often hard on his sons, but even after being let down many times by his feckless father, found him a job and praised him in extravagant terms on his death.
This blend of biography, literary comment and evocation of the Victorian world has certainly inspired me to take another look at Dickens's work. I have always admired his intentions as a social reformer, but found many of his characters too caricatured the general tone too sentimental.
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.
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.
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!)