Charles Dickens : a Life – Claire Tomalin

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read & loved all Claire Tomalin’s previous biographies, especially The Invisible Woman, her book about Dickens & Nelly Ternan. Her new book expands on the research she did for the earlier book & concentrates on Dickens, the man & the novelist. This is a beautifully-written biography. At just over 400pp it’s also one of the more concise biographies of Dickens, a prodigiously busy man who crammed more into every day than almost any other writer I can think of.

Dickens’s life story is well-known. His childhood was dominated by his father’s descent into debt & imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Charles was sent out to work at the age of 12 & he felt humiliated by the job found for him, sticking labels on pots of blacking. Even when his father’s debts were paid & he was released from prison, Charles never forgave his mother for insisting that he should return to the blacking factory rather than go back to school. He felt the lack of a proper education all his life & his endeavours to educate himself – by learning shorthand & working as a parliamentary reporter & eventually writing journalism & fiction – are a testament to how he tried to distance himself from his misery in childhood.

He fell in love with Maria Beadnell, who broke his heart & married Catherine Hogarth, who gave him 10 children & the family stability he longed for. Catherine’s essentially passive, gentle nature couldn’t satisfy Charles for ever though & he unfairly blamed her for the continual pregnancies that ruined her health & her figure, without doing anything to prevent them himself. Catherine is a shadowy figure in this & every other biography of Dickens I’ve read. She briefly comes into focus on the tour of America they undertook in the 1840s, when they only had each other to rely on for companionship. Her good natured tolerance of the strains of a long trip are praised by Dickens but this was probably the only time of their marriage, apart from the very beginning, when they were alone together without children, family, friends & colleagues. Dickens’s dreadful behaviour to Catherine when he fell in love with Nelly Ternan & left her after over 20 years of marriage is unforgivable & Catherine’s dignified silence is a measure of her love for him.

Claire Tomalin’s is especially fascinating on this period of Dickens’s life. From the moment he met Nelly, when she & her family acted in one of his amateur theatre productions, he was enthralled by her & the secretive, determined side of his nature came to the fore. Tomalin shows how his obsession with Nelly took over his life, leading to the painful separation from Catherine, the demands that his children & friends take his side & shun Catherine or be cut off entirely. Only his eldest son, Charley, defied him to live with his mother. All the other children & even Catherine’s sister, Georgina, who had lived with the family as housekeeper for years, chose Dickens. Friendships with Thackeray & Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch, were broken. He was a force of nature & it took a great deal of courage to defy him.

This episode shows Dickens at his worst. He saw the situation in black & white. You were either with him or against him. He began telling people of Catherine’s unsuitability as a mother, that she had never loved the children & they didn’t love her, that she was mentally unstable. He published an open letter in his periodical, Household Words, that justified his actions & alluded to Nelly without spelling anything out. It was a huge mistake. Outside his own circle, no one really knew about his separation. Now, he’d started rumours among people who had known nothing before. Rumours began that he was having an affair with Georgina, his sister-in-law, & his image as the family man, the chronicler of English family life, was damaged.

His notoriously busy life meant that he could flit from place to place, visiting Nelly, taking her on trips to France or on his reading tours, & fudge his whereabouts so that only a few close confidants knew where he was. The growth of the railways also helped him on his mad dashes to Nelly at Slough or Houghton Place. Tomalin believes that Dickens & Nelly had a child, a son who died soon after birth & the evidence points to Nelly living in France during the pregnancy & afterwards. She also believes that it’s possible that Dickens suffered his fatal stroke at Nelly’s house in Slough & that she took him home to Gad’s Hill to avoid scandal. There is no conclusive evidence on either of these points but Tomalin’s arguments, first aired in The Invisible Woman, are very persuasive.

Tomalin concentrates on Dickens the novelist in her discussions of his work & on Dickens the man in his personal relationships. Michael Slater’s excellent biography focused on Dickens’s journalism & his working life & the two books complement each other. Tomalin’s discussions of the novels are trenchant & she is honest about the problems that serial publication imposed on the sometimes baggy plots & extended length of some of the novels. She also highlights Dickens’s inability to write convincing heroines. Even with his wide knowledge of people, many of his women are blank canvases. His charity work with Baroness Burdett Coutts at their Home for young prostitutes (Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens & the House of Fallen Women is an excellent account of this work) shows that he had met, talked to & sympathised with the plight of these young women but the prostitutes & fallen women in his novels talk like characters from theatrical melodrama. His fiction is most convincing when it calls on his own deepest feelings & experiences such as Great Expectations & David Copperfield or when he is exposing the evils of society as in Bleak House.

Dickens was a man of contradictions. The man who generously supported the widows & children of his friends was the same man who cut off his brothers & sons when they couldn’t meet his high expectations. The man who flirted by letter with his old love, Maria Beadnell, when she contacted him years after their romance was the same man who caricatured her cruelly as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit after they met & she disappointed him by being middle-aged, fat & silly.

Claire Tomalin’s biography has many riches, I’ve only just scratched the surface. This would be an excellent introduction to Dickens as it made me immediately want to reread my favourite Dickens novel, Great Expectations, & dip into a few others.

5 thoughts on “Charles Dickens : a Life – Claire Tomalin

  1. I'm so glad that you liked this one (it's next on the pile for me, as you know!) and that it's a good introduction to Dickens' life. I know very little about him, but my appetite to know more was whetted by reading about him in a bio of Elizabeth Gaskell (and in various places about his celebrity).

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  2. I read this in three days. My main problem was being able to hold the book up with Lucky on my lap! It's reasonably short for a Dickens biography & I think it works because Tomalin is such a good writer & because she doesn't try to cover everything. I hope you both enjoy it.

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  3. I'm a huge Dickens fan but I'm not sure if I'll read this. The last biography I read was Ellman's of Oscar Wilde, and it forever ruined his work for me. I just couldn't look at it again after reading his biography. I think I'd learned more about him than I cared to know.

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  4. Susan, I know what you mean. I didn't read any Dickens for 20 years because I was so disgusted at his treatment of Catherine. I also haven't been able to read any May Sarton since I read Margot Peters's biography. I think it's worse if the biography is a reasoned, scholarly one. If it's just a hatchet job, it's easy to dismiss but Margot Peters's book wasn't like that at all. May Sarton came across as a horrible woman & I haven't been able to read her since. Of course, I still have a whole shelf of her books, haven't been able to throw them out either!

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