2015 TBR Pile Challenge: 2 Down, 10 To Go

Signing up for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, as hosted by the Roof Beam Reader (and forced by Amanda and Holly at Gun in Act One to participate) has really made a dent in my TBR Pile.

OK that’s maybe a slight exaggeration. But I’ve owned Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin for a year and now I’ve actually read it. I’m sure I would have continued to overlook it had it not been for this challenge.

I have an on and off relationship with Charles Dickens’ work. Forced to read Hard Times, I wasn’t into it. I’ve had better luck with Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol (obviously) and I loved A Tale of Two Cities. But I started and never finished Nicholas Nickleby and I’m unsure if I will ever read Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House or Little Dorritt.

That said, I was fascinated by the man. I read a biography of his children and it made me want to know more about their father.


Tomalin really delivers. This biography is a thoroughly honest portrayal of the man. Tomalin, his friends and his family readily admit that Dickens was a great man, but he was not saint. Having written another book about Dickens and his relationship with the actress Nelly Ternan, Tomalin is really familiar with her subject. Every once in a while she steps into the novel to give her opinion on some of the murkier aspects of his life, namely his relationship with Ternan, whether there was an illegitimate child (she thinks there was) and the circumstances around his death.

Here are some of the more interesting things I learned about Dickens reading this biography:

  1. He really was a champion of the poor. Having grown up poor and working his way out of poverty, he never forgot about what it was like to be poor. He raised money for hospitals ministering to child labourers, set up a Home for fallen women, and wrote countless articles and speeches speaking out for the rights of the working classes. Hard working people always felt he was on their side.
  2. He only wanted three children. He thought that a family of three children was the height of gentility and always resented the fact that he went on to have six additional children (like he had nothing to do with it). He loved his daughters but was constantly disappointed by his sons, except for Henry, the only one of his sons to make any kind of success of himself.
  3. He walked a lot. He always said that if he was unable to walk, he would be unable to write. In the prime of his life, he could walk 4 miles in an hour (!). Later in life, when he was unable to walk due to the swelling of his foot, he found himself unable to write to the same degree.
  4. He wasn’t great at writing women. Tomalin attributes his inability to write realistic female characters (they tend to hysterical outbursts, hair pulling, and tearful begging) to the termination of a relationship with Maria Beadnell, a woman he was in love with for three years in his early 20s. He always blamed her afterwards for his inability to show affection, especially to his children.
  5. He travelled extensively. He spent long periods of time in Italy, France, Switzerland and embarked on reading tours throughout America. After his first trip to America, he wrote about his less than favourable impressions. Happily, after his second trip, he was a lot more impressed with the place. Boston was his favourite American city.

I think if I had been more familiar with his work, I would have got more out of the book. It kind of reminded me of Keith Richards’ autobiography where he talks about the music, how they wrote it, what he was feeling at the time, what they were trying to achieve. That level of information is only really interesting to the die hard fans. The same could be said of this biography, going over the people, places and experiences that formed his stories and characters. I skipped some descriptions of the books, mostly to save from spoiling the endings should I ever decide to read them after all.

But overall, this was as good a biography as I could have hoped to read.

20 thoughts on “2015 TBR Pile Challenge: 2 Down, 10 To Go

    • No. I really should have been clearer. I made a decision to refer to the books by the number they are listed as on the original list. This was the 8th on the list but only the second I’ve read this year. I should clarify!
      You, however, are definitely on a roll!

  1. This book has been on my list for a while, but you know how I am with non-fiction – it always gets put on the back burner. I would also love to read her biographies of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Writers fascinate me. Reading about his children would also be fun!
    From what I have heard and read, Dickens sounds like a pretty good guy. Yes, he cheated on his wife, and was maybe too hard on his children (maybe they were brats!), but nobody’s perfect. I liked that he walked a lot, because I do, too. It’s the only time of the day I can think clearly. And, I love that he was an advocate for the poor and for ‘fallen’ women. He’s someone who I think it would be interesting to meet. It’s true that his fictional women are way too dramatic, but I always thought he was partly trying to be funny. Hopefully, he didn’t really see women the way he wrote them.
    You should try Bleak House – that one’s my favourite so far!

    • hahaha yes I do know about you and non-fiction. But if I can get over my aversion to CanLit…
      I don’t think his kids were brats, I think they weren’t him and that frustrated him. It’s not so much that he cheated on his wife, it’s the way he went about it. First he held her in contempt for being pregnant all the time, then he basically shunned her and moved out of the house, taking the children and her sister (their housekeeper in a way) with him. His children were forbidden from seeing their mother. And his mistress basically had to disappear from society.
      But then he did so much good work for the most vulnerable in society.
      It’s tough to reconcile.

  2. Ugh, I had to read Our Mutual Friend in university and embarrassingly, I never got around to it. I actually haven’t read much of Dickens’ work (though A Christmas Carol is a given) but the points you pulled are so interesting! #2 makes me really want to learn more about his children…

    • Read the book about his kids – it’s way shorter. I wonder if Dickens will be something that gets better as we get older? Great Expectations was pretty good, A Tale of Two Cities was wonderful (although it took a long time to work through to get the payoff)…even reading about his work I was like “meh.”

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