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Review, Claire Tomalin's 'Charles Dickens A Life'

Posted: Mon January 9th, 2012, 3:18 pm
by writerinthenorth
Claire Tomalin is one of my favourite biographers (her work on Jane Austen, for example, is outstanding) and this may be her best book yet, not least because she conveys so vividly and with such well-researched evidence the complexities and contradictions that made up the life and character of Charles Dickens, and reflects just the right amount of light on the novels where life and story meet.

In particular, she contrasts the genuine sympathy that Dickens felt for suffering humanity (which led him to generous acts of individual philanthropy and attention) with the cruel treatment of his wife Catherine, and his dismissive attitude to most of the males among his offspring, whom he considered as feckless as his own parents. Tomalin is illuminating too on Dickens's egocentricity which lies at the centre both of his triumphs (his greatest characters, such as David Copperfield and Pip, carved from his own image; the huge success of his staged readings) and his failings (intolerance of those who would not bend to his will, obsessive acts of passion, revenge and pettiness). We see in Tomalin's book the many shapes and faces of Dickens, but she also helps us make them whole.

She is at her most interesting and forensic in tracking the development and progress of Dickens's long affair with the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. Tomalin also drops tantalising hints about other possible sexual secrets - was Dickens a user as well as a protector of prostitutes? did he have a sexual relationship with his wife's devoted younger sister, Georgina, or even with the youngest sister Mary Hogarth whose early death brought him an excess of grief and a long-held, strange desire to be buried alongside her? None of these hints is stretched beyond the limits of evidence, but lie glistening in the narrative. Tomalin is less revealing about wife Catherine after her separation from Dickens, which may be from paucity of evidence; it would seem that the deserted Catherine retreated into characteristic blandness without the flame of Dickens nearby.

It is sometimes said that "a biographer is an artist under oath". Claire Tomalin never strays far into the realm of speculation, much less creative invention, but using only the material won by hard research that is nevertheless worked with a sure lightness of touch she keeps us engaged and unwearied, never feelng the weight of the patient hours she has spent creating a rich tapestry, one we are able to appreciate as much for its craft as its truth in the weft.

Posted: Mon January 9th, 2012, 3:55 pm
by fljustice
Thanks for the review. Dickens is one of favorite authors and I'm always on the lookout for good bios about him.

Posted: Mon January 9th, 2012, 5:28 pm
by boswellbaxter
Thanks for the review! I got this bio for my birthday last year. It's indicative of my TBR pile that I haven't read it yet, but I'll move it up the list now!

Posted: Mon January 9th, 2012, 11:41 pm
by Mello
Good review, thanks. Tomalin's Jane Austen bio is one of my most-loved books, and on that basis I will definitely get this one.