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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Books - Charles Dickens - A Life by Claire Tomalin

Star rating – 9/10

There is a definite skill to writing a great biography, and Claire Tomalin proves again with her latest work on the life of Charles Dickens that she has it in spades. Her books are always packed with meticulously researched detail, a genuine appreciation of her subjects and their lives, and above all are riveting reads.

Charles Dickens was possibly the most famous man of his age, and is still certainly one of our best loved and prolific enduring writers. Tomalin uncovers many fascinating aspects of his life with a sympathetic and affectionate eye, whilst not trying to cover up or excuse his many failings along the way. Chief of these has got to be the treatment he cruelly gave to his loyal wife Catherine, whom he was married to whilst still a young man, who bore him an energy sapping ten children and suffered many more heartbreaking miscarriages along the way. And when Dickens had grown tired of her and wanted to pursue a new, albeit secret, relationship with a young actress, Nellie Ternan, he was scathing and false in public about his wife’s part in their failed relationship. He does not seem to have paid much heed to Catherine or to many of the children, regarding some of them as surplus to requirements. And to add to Catherine’s misery, her own sister chose to stay living with Dickens after they parted rather than siding with her.

His affair with Nellie has been covered by Tomalin in great and painstaking detail by Tomalin in ‘The Invisible Woman’ and she does not go over all that old ground in as much detail here. Instead we get glimpses of the relationship that Dickens held most dear for the longest time, that of his deep friendship with John Forster. Dickens was an arrogant and vain man at his worst, and Forster seems to have been one of the very few people who were allowed to be honest with him about his own behaviour.

And quite how Dickens managed to write quite so many fabulous novels is enough to make you dizzy, as he had to fit the monthly or weekly instalments in which they were published into his hectic schedule including speaking tours at home and abroad; acting; contributing to and editing his own magazine; his family ties; and almost obsessive walking around and between his beloved Kent and London. Tomalin gives a great summary of each novel, woven in with the details of Dickens manic and fabulously successful life. She is honest about some of the failings of his stories, as well as making you want to read the most celebrated ones all over again. And this book reminds us that he wrote all his novels in instalments, week by week or month by month, and so could change the course of his stories according to the reaction of his devoted readership.

Dickens was obviously the kind of person who lit up a room, and who revelled in the limelight. But the book reveals some very odd traits in his character, like the yearlong ‘therapy’ he gave to the wife of a French banker, Augusta De La Rue, who was suffering from a mysterious nervous disorder. Dickens was not particularly qualified for the role, but he undertook to treat her nevertheless, and used mesmerism to help her to face whatever demons were haunting her.

His sense of social conscience and liberal reform, which is so clear in his fiction, was also present in his actions, as he devoted much time and energy to, for instance, a home for prostitutes to escape their profession. Tomalin succeeds in bringing the story and times of Dickens to life wonderfully on the page. This is a fabulous book, and well worth all the effort that she must surely have put in to create it.

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