Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin


This is one of a number of books about the great author published in this bicentennial year of his birth, and the latest in a long line of Dickens biographies.

Tomalin’s depiction of Dickens is a fascinating one: a man with prodigious talent and enormous energies (it’s exhausting just to read about his multiple, overlapping workschedules); someone who was enormously compassionate to those in poverty and hardship (often personally offering practical assistance); someone who was warm and funny, but could also be unbelievably cruel and dismissive; and someone who’s output could be brilliantly imaginative and insightful, but also unashamedly sentimental. Tomalin manages to weave together the different strands of Dickens’ character and talents into a convincing, revealing, and coherent portrait of a particularly gifted but flawed individual.

William Boyd, writing in The Observer says:-

Tomalin’s biography – always scrupulous about what we can know, what we can deduce and what is mere speculation – paints a portrait of a complex and exacting man. He was at once vivacious and charming, charismatic and altruistic and possessed of superabundant energies… But he was also, equally – to an almost schizoid degree – tormented, imperious, vindictive and implacable, once wronged.

These matters are particularly focused when it comes to the story of Dickens’s marriage and his long affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. Dickens, aged 45, fell for Ellen Ternan when she was 18… Dickens had long been unhappy in his marriage – a union that had produced 10 children by this time – and his infatuation with Nelly brought out the worst in him. He publicly separated from Catherine, humiliating her in the cruellest manner, and, after a form of courtship with Nelly – who did not yield to his importuning immediately – set her up as his mistress in a series of houses on the outskirts of London. This was done in the greatest secrecy, and it’s something of a miracle that we know about this side of Dickens’s life at all.

What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn’t hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose.

Tomalin is also very good at analysing Dickens’ writing, though I, like Judith Flanders writing in The Telegraph, am perhaps more forgiving of his sentimental side:-

And when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial: Dickens’s villains are walking contradictions, viciously cruel characters who are also outrageously funny; Great Expectations is “delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious”, magically creating a tenebrous world of failure, as Pip fails to understand others, fails to win love, fails to save his benefactor, fails, ultimately, to become a man. However it is also the case, of course, that when she dismisses something – and she has no tolerance at all for the more sentimental side of Dickens’s fiction that many (myself included) genuinely enjoy – she can be devastating. Edwin Drood, she tells us briefly, is “perfectly readable”. Ouch.

This is a biography which is well worth reading, both for its insights into Dickens’ life and works, and the times in which he lived. As Boyd Tonkin writes in The Independent:-

Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life of course enters a crowded field. But she brings to it all the peerless ability to match scholarship to storytelling that won acclaim, and honours, for her lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield – and of actress Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman, Dickens’s later-life mistress. As a biographer, Tomalin remains (as her subject called himself ) “inimitable”.


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