Most readers will acknowledge Claire Tomalin to be a brave lady to have undertaken the writing of this further biography of such a well-documented and loved author and man. Certainly the book has been superbly researched and brings out much many readers would have been unaware of. Many where brought up to view Charles Dickens in a slightly romanticised way, as the great novelist and popular man of his age. This biography however, brings home the reality in a very honest and uncompromising manner. Some will no doubt feel a little disappointed by the factual uncovering but in truth the book is the richer for it.
The reader is given insight into a very human man who had both his strengths and weaknesses. He was obviously a tenacious person: extricating himself from the poverty trap he was born into; achieving a good income through long hours of hard work; continuing to write and give public readings despite chronic illnesses and pain. Unusually, as the reader is clearly shown, he became popular and admired during his own lifetime. This is the more surprising because, as is well known, he was critical of the social attitudes of highly placed individuals and families as well as of government. This, naturally, made him popular with the downtrodden citizens of the time. Nonetheless, it is surprising he was never overtly persecuted by the authorities. Perhaps they rightly recognised such a move could be counterproductive. There had also been the prevalent and very real concern the ethos of the French Revolution may cross the English Channel with consequent results. To alienate the common citizen was the last thing the authorities would want to chance.
Claire Tomalin also draws out how much he enjoyed male company and really did not understand women. The latter is depicted, rather deplorably, by how he treated his wife and in his management of the other women in his life, even those he cared about and loved. He seems to rarely have considered their needs, comfort or desires, always assuming his decisions and choices were unarguably the right ones. The reader is also shown his tendency to treat colleagues, friends and employees in similar manner, frequently displaying an intolerance that boarded upon down right rudeness and arrogance. Many put up with this because of their love for him but once anyone got on his wrong side, including his own children, there had been no going back; he could be quite unforgiving. Of course, it has to be accepted this is the other side of a tenacious and stubborn temperament but that after all is what really enabled him to succeed.
Other aspects of the man drawn out by the author are: his prolific and agile mind that resulted in so many novels; newspaper and magazine articles; management, ownership and editing of newspapers and magazines; his American Letters (recording his experiences and observations from visits to that country); the writing of plays; his love of theatre often acting himself; his prolific letter writing. Thankfully many of his letters have survived from which Claire Tomalin includes quotes and gathers incidental and supportive information.
An aspect of the man not perhaps generally known, and drawn out in this biography, was how physically active he was. He openly stated his need of exercise to enable him to write and complained, whenever confined by illness, his mind was fogged and he could not write well. He also believed regular sexual activity necessary for a man’s health, evidenced by his numerous children. His restless nature also resulted in a constant change of residence and in regular travelling.
Some of the incidents recorded in this worthwhile book imply Dickens was to some degree insecure within himself. After his separation and in some ways cruel treatment of Catherine, his wife, he regularly seeks to justify his behaviour even to the extent of affectively fabricating circumstances. Another aspect tending to reveal this insecurity is his instance upon giving, in later life, numerous public readings despite frequently suffering considerable pain and poor health. He appeared to need the ‘adoration’ of his public; as long as people loved him he seemed content.
The biography clearly draws out Dickens’s very mixed character. The reader is shown how intolerant, cruel and unforgiving he could be but is also shown the other side of his character. He could be generous and frequently sought to help the less well off or troubled. He was often involved with, if not the instigator of, charitable works. This side of his character became even more evident after his death when details of how he provided for many friends, colleagues and employees and their dependents were revealed.
Claire Tomalin brings all these diverse characteristics and events to light in a most readable and interesting biography. She, as one commentator says, also brings to life those personalities and characters who surrounded the great man, giving sufficient detail to understand how they interacted with Dickens and why he liked them but not so much as to detract from the central theme of the book.
In places too many events are thrown together which tends to leave the reader feeling breathless. In addition, some are occasionally repeated. It is evident this has been done for chronological reasons but some readers may find it a little irritating. The author acknowledges that in some places there are perhaps too many facts given simultaneously. However, this was due to the unusual circumstance of someone having found Dickens’s note book that he had lost in America. Many previously unknown facts have been gathered from this.
This biography merits and incontrovertible five stars (5*).
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