Review: Charles Dickens: A Life

“He saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation, and sometimes sobs.”

Claire Tomalin

Merry Christmas, one and all!

In the spirit of Dubious Tie-Ins, I present a Christmas mini-review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of the king of modern Christmas, Charles Dickens: A Life, which, as is fitting for this seasonal feast of superficiality and commercialism, I bought at least partly for its cover.

Nothing about the book itself, however, is at all superficial.

I think we have a tendency to lionise great authors: Shakespeare as Not For An Age, But For All Time; Milton the Blind and Oppressed Prophet; Dickens the People’s Writer. The work of the good biographer is to explode such stereotypes, to lay forth a life in all its complex shades of grey, and Tomalin does so skilfully and with depth.

Dickens was capable of great generosity, in the abstract: he saved a young woman accused of murdering her baby from the death penalty; he set up and ran for many years a Home for prostitutes. But, like many writers, he was also capable of great selfishness. Tomalin especially comes out on the side of the women in his life: Catherine, his wife for twenty-two years, constantly pregnant with unwanted children (because Dickens, obviously, refused to stop having sex with her, and, as Tomalin points out with some bemusement, never seems to have considered any form of contraception), thrown away when he grew tired of her; Ellen Ternan, the young actress he may or may not have seduced, and may or may not have got pregnant, holding his reputation as more important than her well-being.

This is not, actually, very surprising: Dickens never wrote a convincing female character. What is interesting is how deep, as it were, the rabbit-hole goes: how uncompromisingly unreasonable Dickens could be at home, and how loved he was in public.

Tomalin writes convincingly and in detail, but the book never drags. It’s an immersive and interesting story about one of Britain’s favourite authors, and would make a lovely late Christmas present.

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