Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A LifeCharles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Insightful and authoritative, this biography traces Charles Dickens from his harsh childhood to the heights of literary success and the depths of marital scandal, painting the portrait of an extraordinary man and artist.

Charles Dickens is one of those precious few writers who people both read for pleasure and as Great Literature. He had a long and eventful life, crammed with friends, family, and many endeavors. He was not only a prolific author: he tried his hand at organizing and acting in plays, public readings of condensed versions of his novels, incredible works of charity, and being a one-man institution to support a growing crowd of shiftless relatives, plus unfortunate widows and orphans.

The first two parts of the book describes Dickens's difficult childhood and rise to success. He was a talented writer who captured the spirit of his own age, and was well-loved for it. The final third of the book recounts Dickens's ugly public separation from his wife (who seems to have been a good woman, but too quiet and dull for her charismatic husband - though they did manage to have ten children in twenty years of marriage). Dickens embarked on a twelve-year secret affair with Nelly Ternan, an actress younger than his own daughters. Tomalin faces this head-on, cutting Dickens little slack: "You can feel sorry for him as he struggles, but it is impossible to like what he did, or on occasion to believe what he said" (301). She describes his personal failures with feeling:

"...the darkest part of his character was summoned up. He was ready to be cruel to his defenceless wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defence. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking. He was determined to be in the right about everything. He must have known he was not, but he had lost his judgement. The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying." - 293

Tomalin wrote a book about Nelly Ternan called The Invisible Woman, drawing on the scanty historical facts to put together a picture of a life deliberately erased. She brings an incredible depth of scholarship to bear on both lives.

I love Tomalin's clear critical eye on his literary output, where she not only reports on the historical reception of each work, but gracefully articulates her own insights. She asserts that "In his writing too there were conflicts, a touch of ham certainly, but alongside it the dazzling jokes, the Shakespearean characterization, the delicacy and profundity of imagination, the weirdness and brilliance of his descriptive powers" (389).

Overall, Tomalin manages the impossible balancing act of staying objective about her subject without being detached. She clearly admires Dickens's energy, talent, and generosity, while remaining honest about his human failings. Her writing is always engaging, and she has the gift for finding the telling details out of the unruly, busy life of one of England's best writers.

All his life, Dickens was unflagging in his advocacy for the poor, the imprisoned, and the destitute. The story of one of his most remarkable endeavors, a Home to help women escape prostitution, is told in Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley. He strongly identified with the protagonist of David Copperfield, and it was his own favorite book. I highly recommend Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life, a book I loved (or one of her other impressive literary biographies).

"Even his most hostile critics acknowledged that he described London 'like a special correspondent for posterity'. Early in his writing career he started to call himself 'the inimitable': it was partly a joke with him, but not entirely, because he could see that there was no other writer at work who could surpass him, and that no one among his friends or family could even begin to match his energy and ambition. He could make people laugh and cry, and arouse anger, and he meant to amuse and to make the world a better place." - p. xlvii

On A Christmas Carol:
"The book went straight to the heart of the public and has remained lodged there ever since, with its mixture of horror, despair, hope and warmth, its message - a Christian message - that even the worst of the sinners may repent and become a good man; and its insistence that good cheer, food and drink shared, gifts and even dancing are not merely frivolous pleasures but basic expressions of love and mutual support among all human beings." - 150

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