'Charles Dickens: A Life' Brings Dickens Down to Earth

Clare Tomalin's timely biography focuses on how the man who wrote both heroes and villains so well found elements of both in himself.

Charles Dickens, A Life

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 576 pages
Author: Clare Tomalin
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-10

In the last chapter of her biography, Claire Tomalin speaks of one of Dickens' earliest biographers: his daughter, Katey (Kate Perugini). "Katey spoke out," Tomalin tells us, "as no one had done before, mixing love and anger, but clear in what she said." Tomalin speaks in voices of both love and anger, but for the most part, succeeds in narrating a clear-eyed view of a man whose great fault was that almost no one in the real world could captivate him the way a creature of his own imagination could. Most of the real people to whom he did show consistent attention and affection were either unattainable in some way, or themselves set him up on such a pedestal that it was impossible for him to turn away such adoration.

This explains his neglect and eventual dismissal of his wife, Catherine, with whom he had ten children, who was rarely documented to have spoken a bad word about him, and of whom Katey Dickens said, "My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion-- never allowed to say what she felt." In Tomalin's biography, Catherine appears as a model housekeeper and loving spouse, content to serve as a prop to Dickens for years while he set first one and then another of her sisters on pedestals far above her (he wanted to be buried next to one of her sisters, and the other was his housekeeper even after he divorced Catherine).

He spent suspiciously large amounts of time with another man's wife, practising "mesmerism" on her; flirted publicly with other women in person and in writing; and finally libeled and slandered his wife following a separation he initiated in order to pursue the affections of an eighteen-year-old actress. He was at this time in his late forties. Catherine was not conventionally beautiful or romantically mysterious enough to be imbued with any charisma for Dickens, and it seems that he came to be angry with her almost because she had never given him any reason to hate her.

Even to most of his ten children, Dickens was often emotionally inaccessible except in short bursts of cheer. His treatment of most members of his family would mark him as a rather unfeeling man, if it weren't for his famous and fervent great love of his friends and fans, and unremitting support of the poor and disenfranchised. In the end, Dickens evinced many of the traits shared by people with a great degree of self-loathing.

Tomalin submits that he could not take an interest in most of his sons because he feared that they were failed versions of himself. She supplies us with an excerpt of a letter from Dostoevsky, in which that author paraphrases something Dickens told him: "He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell... 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," (ellipsis mine).

This same man spent much of his life publicly decrying the treatment of the poor by society's hierarchy, using raw sentiment to wring from readers pity for dying children. He opened a home to teach work skills and society manners to prostitutes looking to better their situations. After the famous Staplehurst train accident, he dusted himself off and began looking about for injured people to help. (Of course, this was moments after he made sure his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother, who were with him during the crash, were surreptitiously sent away to protect his reputation.) He was known for being an energetic and joyful presence by most everyone who knew him.

Tomalin, wisely, does not try to choose sides for us. She loves Dickens in all his complexity, and trusts that the truth of his life will be enough for a reader to make a fair judgment. The book strikes an excellent balance between documentary and narrative, providing facts while creating a story to follow, though Tomalin frequently lapses into what almost amounts to fact listing in an attempt to cover quite a bit of ground in only 400 pages. The story's jumping back and forth in time required me to flip back and forth in the book, to ensure I knew where I was in the sequence of events. On a practical note, it's a good idea to skip her descriptions of his novels if you plan to read them someday, because there are several spoilers.

So many of Dickens' characters are well-loved by so many people, that during in his lifetime he enjoyed immense celebrity status. His intense work-ethic and prolific output made him seem almost super-human. But he was, after all, just a man torn between the idealized notion of himself he saw reflected in his admirers, and the knowledge that, despite his genius, he fell short in many very important respects. By bringing Dickens down to Earth, Tomalin has deflated some of his mythic aura, but somehow made him more lovable.


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