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Book Review: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Posted By Elinor Teele On November 6, 2011 @ 10:00 am In Biography,Books,Great Britain,Non-Fiction Reviews,Writers | No Comments

Charles Dickens: A Life
by Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press, 576 pp.
CLR Rating:


Charles Dickens: Puck Everlasting

In my own, admittedly, rather odd version of heaven, God reserves a special place for biographers. I picture it much like a Pompeiian garden – a statue-strewn lawn where David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin can lounge around in togas and quiz John Adams on his medical history.

Someday, hopefully in the far distant future, Claire Tomalin will be there too, sampling the dates and sipping Chianti with Pepys and Austen. What’s more, I have no doubt, the whole crowd will be waiting for Charles Dickens.

He will arrive in a gust of energy and attention, clicking his patent toed boots against the stone steps. Running his hands through his long hair and turning his soulful eyes on the nearest lady, he will launch into an apology for his tardiness – he has walked the full fifteen miles from St. John’s office – and then inquire in a thick-tongued speech if he might, just perhaps, have a glass of gin punch?

As Tomalin tells it, his taste for the good life and the thickness in his speech he inherited from his father, the Micawberesque John Dickens. Working as a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office, John Dickens had aspirations to be a gentleman of leisure. Alas, he eventually found himself at leisure in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison.

Much has been made of Charles’s childhood year at Warren’s factory, labeling pots of blacking, but I think Dickens would appreciate Tomalin’s handling of it. She highlights the young boy’s discipline – he would parcel out his wages into money for days of the week – and the stories he would tell to the little maid who worked for his family:

He even kept a sense of occasion, and allowed himself, on his birthday, to go into a public house in Westminster and order a glass of the ‘very best ale…with a good head to it,’ to the considerable surprise of the landlord and his wife.

She also does a splendid job of showing his love for the city. Along with the teeming dung-filled streets and the thrill of the stage, London gave him a job as a lawyer’s clerk, then as a journalist, then as the up-and-coming author of The Pickwick Papers.

In a sense, the city trumped all other women. Though he loved Catherine Hogarth, his first and only wife, they had little in common intellectually. He regarded her as a Victorian would. She was to be the mother of his children (he may not have been expecting to have to pay for ten), and attentive to his needs.

The same principle applied to Catherine’s younger sister, Mary. When she abruptly died – prompting a run of anemic young heroines in his early novels – he asked the same of Georgina, yet another sister. Like his best friend John Forster, she was to stay with him to the end.

It was not always an easy task. Despite his generous philanthropy, his talent for friendship, his championship of the poor, and his lust for life, Dickens could often be changeable – much more Puck than Peter Pan.

As Eleanor Pickens, a perceptive nineteen-year-old recorded in 1840, Puck could sometimes get out of hand:

Dickens seemed suddenly to be possessed with the demon of mischief; he threw his arm around me and ran me down the inclined plane to the end of the jetty till we reached a tall post. He put his other arm round this, and exclaimed in theatrical tones that he intended to hold me there till ‘the sad sea waves’ should submerge us.

Which he proceeded to do; or at least until the salt had thoroughly ruined the bottom of Eleanor’s silk dress.

For a time, during the 1840s and 50s, the sun shone. Oliver Twist and Little Nell had made his name famous throughout the world. He visited the United States, but did not care for it – “we are now in the regions of slavery, spittoons, and senators – all three are evils in all countries” – and continued his marathon walks through the city.

On occasion, it can feel as if Tomalin is running behind him, trying to catch up. For he is everywhere at once – in a box at the theater, reading his latest installment to friends, dragging a reluctant companion to a Paris morgue, editing his magazines and interviewing candidates for his Home for prostitutes.

And coming home for supper. Meeting the family on holiday, Thackeray noted all the Dickens “looking abominably coarse vulgar and happy.”

The happiness was not to last. More Scrooge than Bob Cratchit in some respects, he was not particularly fond of his sons. Charley, his eldest, he deemed to be suffering from a “lassitude of character” and he did not see much hope for the others. He worried they might metamorphose into his father or his brothers, relying on him for handouts.

And he was becoming thoroughly sick of Catherine. Like Henry the Eighth, he was bored, and, like Henry the Eighth, he was in a position to do something about it.

Nelly Ternan, a young actress, was to be his Anne Boleyn. Catherine was not beheaded, but she might as well have been. Dickens forced her to separate, asked his children to choose between the parents, and put the word about that his wife was suffering from a mental disorder.

Fortunately, we have his daughter Katey’s perspective:

We like to think of our great geniuses as great characters – but we can’t… My father was like a madman when my mother left home, this affair brought out all that was worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.

Dickens’s energies were now centered on Nelly, his work and his reputation. Tomalin makes a good case that Nelly went to France to have an illegitimate child, who died young, but the matter never made it to the papers. In the public eye, Dickens the great novelist resided with Georgina and his younger children – a man rapidly aging into an icon.

This was the late afternoon of his life, the hour of Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, when Pip’s obsessive love for Estella finds its reflection in Nelly and the Thames becomes a graveyard of floating corpses. London is no longer a cheerful floozy, she’s an aging, painted trollop harboring a host of nasty diseases.

It mattered not. Dickens had his own painful disease – gout – which didn’t thwart his incessant need to be up and about. To earn money (and get away to see Nelly), he began a series of reading tours, indulging his audiences with the murder of Nancy. The public adored it; critics sometimes accused him of being a ham.

He began The Mystery of Edwin Drood, revised his will – forgiving Charley for his past transgressions – and assisted his daughters in their amateur theatrical group. But the clock was winding down, and the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him never let him sound the last hour. The novel remained unfinished.

For all his faults and fair qualities, he remained his own harshest critic. Dostoevsky, a fellow chronicler of life’s circus, discovered this in 1862:

He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote.


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