Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
417 pages (w/t notes)
First published 2011
1/2 biographies (2013 Book Challenge)
Charles Dickens had a very busy life. “He did not pause until the day he fell unconscious to the ground.”
I wasn’t sure how to state my opinion on the book — saying that I enjoyed it, seemed like an unfavourable implication — I cannot ‘enjoy’ someone’s life! But I found that the biography was written well, carefully researched, and Claire Tomalin’s respect for Dickens showed in her narrative.
Tomalin gives just enough background information to make the Reader understand the time in which Dickens was living and how it affected him and his work. At the same time, her narrative moves swiftly through his life, and does not dwell too much on any certain event in his life. If there are any special events or projects that Dickens took up that require more explanation, Tomalin devotes a chapter to them, no more, so that the narrative continues to flow smoothly. It is just enough to grab the Readers attention, and let him know more, without getting side-tracked. Now, Claire Tomalin has another book devoted solely to the relationship between Dickens and his ‘mistress’ Nancy Ternan (The Invisible Woman).
When each of Dickens’s novels comes into his life, Tomalin gives it a mini-review, overview of themes and characters. This means there are spoilers to the books, particularly in reference to character deaths. So, read bravely if you don’t mind spoilers to Dickens novels or you’ve read them all. Otherwise, avoid. (I spoiled Dombey and Son for myself, hah.)
The biography provides a clear and unbiased (or rather, multi-perspective) view of Dickens’s character. I cannot sum it up for myself, and even his daughter, Katey, could find no words to describe her father, whether he was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When contributing to another of his biographies, after his death, she spoke in confusing, incomplete statements. “He was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful!” “I loved him for his faults.” And then — “My father was a wicked man — a very wicked man.” He was dedicated to his work, affectionate with his friends, but when they wronged him — he let them go, he was cruel to his wife, hot and cold towards his children, wild about theatre, protective of the people and orphans…
I don’t know how I feel about biographies. Would I want one written about me? Disecting my personality, uncovering everything I wish to cover up, looking into the darkest crevices of my character… No. And I wish I knew Dickens as he wished me to know him. I still love the man, what can I say. Nothing can quench my adoration of his work and admiration for his brilliance. But was he good to those who loved him? To some, not to all.
Anyway, to summarize this biography for some Readers — here is Dickens’s life in 10 facts. Very random and disorganized, so do not read this strictly chronologically or in order or anything…
1. Charles Dickens cared more for his daughters than his sons. He had three daughters and seven sons. Most of his sons, with the exception of Henry Dickens – a lawyer, turned out as bad versions of himself, which is how he saw them. They disappointed him in their lives’ pursuits, most of them falling into debt and dying of illness somewhere far away. And he did not even want that many children, he did not seem to love them that much, the company of the little ones tired and distracted him. He gave them ridiculous names, most as tributes to his favourite people. Lord Alfred Tennyson was a godfather to one of Dickens’s sons, Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson.
2. Charles Dickens’s first trip to Paris and France found it a detestable place, and French people detestable people. But then, his opinion changed drastically: France became his favourite place on earth, and Frenchmen were declared to be the best people in the world. Dickens became a Francophile and remained such for the rest of his life, making sporadic and frequent trips from London to Paris. A little bit of irony: his son Charley said his father should have been born a Frenchman, while throughout his lifetime (to this day) Dickens was considered England’s national treasure.
3. Dickens spoke out (or rather wrote) on a lot of social and political issues, with a view to change and improve them. He became the protector of the poor, the defender of the middle classes, and the critic of the rich. He was angered by poverty, child labour, prostitution, England’s legal system, and the poor condition of prisons, among other things.
4. Charles Dickens started a newspaper (one of few) Daily News and he wanted it to rival The Times, which did not happen, but the work on the newspaper gave him another outlet for his energy and enthusiasm for writing. However, he soon tired of it, and left it to focus on Dombey and Son and his fictional work in general. The managing of the newspaper bored him and he found it tiring and too demanding, after a while. After that the newspaper slowly fell apart, losing its top contributor. Following Daily News there were more journalistic projects, Household Words, an anonymous publication, and another journal All the Year Round, which both featured tons of articles by Dickens, his travel guides, as well as periodicals of some of his novels.
5. He took extremely long, frequent walks, which is were his favourite pastimes, apart from theatre and writing. When Dickens became ill, and his feet would swell often, he could not venture out into the countryside, or down London’s duty streets. This upset him, and his need for his regular promenades is further defined in his writing, “Deprivation of my usual walks is a very serious matter to me, as I cannot work unless I have my constant exercise.”
6. Dickens set up a Home for Homeless Women to help prostitutes find a home where they could start over (as opposed to a place for rehabilitation to “expiate their sins”). But he was also a contributor to the double standard on prostitutions — he agreed that any healthy young man needed their service when he could not find it elsewhere. In any case, Dickens devoted a lot of money, energy, and time to the establishment of the Home and it proved to be a success. It lasted for more than a decade, and many of the women emigrated and started families abroad. Here is the gentle, welcoming advertisement for the Home, written by Dickens, without criticism and judgement and denouncement:
7. When Charles Dickens was in his forties, he split from his wife, which was a very painful separation for her and their mutual friends, and children. Dickens wrote several articles basically pouring dirt over her good name and reputation, claiming Catherine Dickens did not care for or love their children, and they did not love her. At the same time Dickens began an affair with Nancy Ternan, a young actress almost thirty years his junior! This is the darkest and most unpleasant time in his life in my eyes. No matter how I look at it, I cannot understand it or find arguments in its defense… The affair was kept very secret, Dickens kept sending her money, providing her with residence, and later running to her in France whenever he could. Two of Dickens’s children suggest that Nancy had and lost a child in France, a boy. This is backed up by some, but others refuse to believe that Dickens’s relations with Nancy Ternan were of sexual nature.
8. It was later in his life that Dickens started his famous readings of his novels, or rather, adapted versions and passages from his books. It started off as an experiment, and at first was not approved of by some of his friends. But the popularity of his readings was tremendous, they brought in a lot of money, although tired and reduced the health of Dickens. “Yet he went on. Readings brought in much better money than book sales, and he was desperate to earn, feeling he was in a trap from which he had to escape by earning — the trap of having been born with the wrong parents, supplied with the wrong brothers, married to the wrong wife, father of the wrong sons, with the result that he was surrounded by dependants.”
9. Once, on a train, the writer was impressed and moved by a twelve-year-old fan. This is one of my favourite parts of the biography:
10. The exact details of Dickens’s death are uncertain because of varying accounts given by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law who lived with him her whole life, Nancy Ternan, his mistress, and the doctor who came to attend on him. But based on all of Georgina’s versions, their final exchange was her “Come and lie down,” to his reply of “Yes, on the ground”. Then he collapsed on the floor, unconscious. After this the doctor was called in, and Dickens lasted another day or so, unconscious on the sofa. In the evening of his last day on earth, “Dickens gave a sign, a tear appeared in his right eye and ran down his cheek, and he stopped breathing.” His haunting last words, and heart-wrenching passage from this world to another left a lasting impression on me.
I don’t have much experience with biographies, in fact, this is my first complete biography that I have read. Having mentioned that, Tomalin’s biography of Dickens impressed me as a strong one, complete and without any holes, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to find out more about Dickens.
Reader, What do you think of Dickens now? What is the most shocking/amazing/interesting thing about Dickens’s life that you’ve found out about? Did your opinion on Dickens change after that?
No matter what was going on in his private life, Charles Dickens was always loved by the public. “As novelist, crusading editor and public figure he was loved by the aspiring poor, listened to by the middle classes and found amusing by their betters.” And I think it will remain so.