Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens has been a favourite author of mine ever since I first opened Bleak House, over a grey English Christmas holiday. I was thrilled to learn that Claire Tomalin was writing a biography of him, to be released in time to tie in with his 200th birthday celebrations this year. I have read her biography of Jane Austen (another favourite), which I thought was fantastic. Tomalin doesn’t disappoint, using available resources, including a large number of Dickens’s own letters to friends and family, to build a portrait of a complex and compelling man.

Tomalin writes the book chronologically; every chapter is a few years of Dickens’s life. She writes with clarity; letters and other sources are all clearly footnoted giving this already large book a ninety page section of notes at the end. As life is, by its nature, disorganised without neat endings, Tomalin often explicitly informs us that people will reappear in a period of time, which helps as otherwise we could feel as though people had just disappeared abruptly. The book also has plenty of illustrations; Dickens was photographed many times throughout his life, and as the book continues we can watch him age, becoming a grizzled old man although he was only fifty eight when he died. Other photos and portraits show family and friends, helping us to put faces to names.

Dickens was a self made man, and the book clearly shows how driven he was to achieve despite obstacles. His parents were loving, but ineffectual; his spendthrift father and he would have a tumultuous relationship all his life, especially after Dickens made money. Unusually for the time they prioritised his sister’s education over his, paying for Fanny to attend the Royal Academy of Music at vast expense while Dickens had to work to earn his keep. His first job, working in a blacking factory, had an effect on Dickens that rippled through the rest of his life. He was later deeply ashamed of having worked in such a menial job. At the time he was also lonely, separated from his family. He was, though, free to wander the streets of London, getting to know its seamier side, the dirty streets, the prostitutes, and the poor, that would later populate his novels.

As an adult Dickens plunged into everything with an excess of energy. He overcommitted himself in every direction, working not just as a novelist, but reporter, editor, amateur actor and social campaigner. In his personal relationships Dickens was fiercely loyal, and yet those that fell out of favour were treated abominably. He financially supported an astonishingly large number of people: his parents, siblings, their families and mistresses, and the widows and children of friends and acquaintances, yet two of his brothers wore out his patience and died in poverty. He left his wife after twenty years of marriage. A separation was unusual in those times, and it caused a minor scandal. Dickens used his celebrity to publicly denounce his wife. Tomalin’s account of his cruel behaviour towards her is very unflattering. Dickens was, however, a tireless campaigner for the poor and underprivileged. His books drew the attention of the middle and upper classes to those less fortunate in their society. The fate of Nancy in Oliver Twist, and Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, both having a noticeable effect on the public. Dickens was heavily involved in the running of a charitable institution which turned around the lives of prostitutes, educating them and providing them the opportunity to emigrate for a better life. It is hard to reconcile the two sides of the man, but Tomalin makes the case with clarity throughout the book that Dickens’s early struggles gave him a sympathy for those in need, but a total lack of tolerance for those who squandered the opportunities he gave them.

The latter sections of the book are quite moving. By this time Dickens’s health was failing him: he probably had gout, and was possibly an alcoholic. Tomalin tells us of a visit to stay with friends where Dickens is known to have packed a private bottle of punch. Despite this he continued to work at a phenomenal rate. Around this time he wrote some of his finest novels: Bleak House and Great Expectations are two of his latest works. He was at the peak of his celebrity, travelling throughout Britain and America putting on the public readings of his novels he became so well known for. He received rave reviews, but the letters of those who knew him tell a different story: these stage performances often left him shattered - he apparently had to be helped off stage at the end. He complained of sleeplessness, faintness, various pains, and lack of appetite (although his account of what he did eat was a prodigious amount of alcohol including ‘a pint of champagne’ for dinner). Dickens appears now to be an irascible old man, but he was as hardworking as ever, right up until the day he died. It would take a hard hearted reader not to feel the pathos of his final words: on the suggestion he lie down Dickens replied “yes, on the ground” and collapsed. Tomalin has successfully created a three dimensional figure, so that it is easy now to forgive this frail man his faults, and understand the national outpouring of grief that occurred at his sudden death.

This is an excellent biography. My only disappointment was that while I learnt so much about Georgian society reading about Jane Austen in that book, I felt I learnt less about the wider world he inhabited. This is perhaps because the Victorians are more familiar than the Georgians, thanks in part to Dickens bringing his world so vividly to life in his novels. Dickens created a cultural legacy that few can match. In her book Tomalin successfully brings to life the man behind the name.

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