Book review: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

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It’s a sweet irony that Claire Tomalin’s magnificent account of England’s greatest storyteller reads more like a gripping novel than a conventional biography.

This is Dickens the man and Dickens the writer, the story of his life, times and work told with such insight and honesty that readers might be fooled into believing that Tomalin had been granted some kind of celestial interview with the great man himself.

It’s 200 years since Charles Dickens was born and his bicentenary could not be celebrated with more style, warmth and humanity than in the pages of this remarkable book which brings us the literary genius in all his colourful and fascinating complexity.

He was the author whose name was a byword in almost every home in Britain, he could make people laugh and cry, he wanted to amuse and to make the world a better place, and even his most hostile critic acknowledged that he described London ‘like a special correspondent for posterity.’

But he was also an enigma... there was a darker side to the man whose ‘brilliance’ lit up a room and who ‘left a trail like a meteor.’ His demons drove him to reject his wife, fail his ten children, break with friends whom he believed had wronged him, and conduct a secret affair with an actress years younger than himself.

What many, including his wife Catherine Hogarth and his children, did not know was that Dickens had endured a traumatic childhood. Born in 1812, he was one of eight children of a clerk in the naval pay office in Portsmouth whose tendency to live beyond his means inspired the creation of the irrepressible Mr Micawber.

However, the profligacy of Dickens senior also led to his imprisonment at the infamous Marshalsea debtors’ prison in London in 1824.

Young Charles, whose youth had hitherto been happy, was sent to work in a shoe blacking factory, near what is now Charing Cross station, to help his impoverished family. It was an ordeal that left an indelible scar on both the man and the writer who used his experiences as the foundations of many of his books and his lifelong interest in the reform of social, economic and labour conditions in England.

By the age of 15, Dickens had found work as a junior clerk in a London lawyer’s office before moving into journalism, reporting on parliamentary debate, travelling across Britain to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle and writing his famous Sketches by Boz.

He rocketed to fame with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers and within a few years he had become an international literary star, celebrated for his humour, satire and keen observation of character and society.

His novels, which he sometimes worked on three at a time, were mostly published in monthly or weekly instalments and pioneered the Victorian fashion for serial publication of fiction.

In between writing, Dickens sat on a variety of good works committees and raised funds for the children of friends left orphaned or destitute. But, as Tomalin reveals, his home life was far from harmonious. He resented his wife and found it difficult to show his feelings to his children.

When he fell in love with actress Nelly Ternan and finally left Catherine after 20 years of marriage, Dickens publicly humiliated his wife by revealing what he saw as her faults to the world.

But he was also a man of immense charm, warmth and humour who went out of his way to help the humblest and poorest in society, abhorred power and greed and was adored by a public captivated by both the man and his books.

‘It will not do to draw round any part of such a man too hard a line,’ wrote John Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer.

Victim, zealot, demonic worker, tireless walker, radical, satirist, republican, smoker, drinker and, above all, genius, Dickens was truly a man for all seasons.

‘Everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens,’ says Tomalin, and the version she presents to readers in this vivid, memorable and definitive biography is probably the nearest to the real man that most of us will ever find.

(Penguin, paperback, £9.99)