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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.