Sunday, January 08, 2012

Review: "Charles Dickens: A Life"

Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin, 2011) was certainly well timed, appearing just a few months before the bicentennial of Dickens' birth on 7 February. It's a doorstop of a book (at 488 pages including the notes), but thankfully it's also a very good read; Tomalin tells the author's story without sparing any of the gory details (and there are plenty of them to be told).

From her opening chapters on Dickens' family background, Tomalin makes clear just how hard Dickens pushed himself to be successful, working almost maniacally at times on his various writing projects, with other endeavours (public readings, philanthropic efforts, &c.) never far from the front burner.

Tomalin focuses on Dickens' working habits, his travels, his personal relationships and his finances; but there's also room here to discuss the writings, from what inspired them to their public reception. The book is positively packed with details: a double-edged sword, since they're fascinating but also a bit much at times. Still, I was surprised that there wasn't more here about Dickens' relationships with his publishers and his illustrators, and I would have enjoyed more details of his 1868 American trip.

A major theme of Tomalin's biography is Dickens' complicated family dynamic, and the author minces no words about his shabby treatment of his wife Catherine, from whom he ended up separating rather messily. Tomalin, whose previous books include a biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens' late-life paramour, explores that relationship thorougly, suggesting that the couple had a son and that Dickens might have suffered his final, fatal attack not at his Gad's Hill home, but at Nelly Ternan's residence. And she plumbs the depths of Dickens' dealings with his children, which in a great many instances seem nothing but, well, cruel.

As any good biography should do, this made me want to read more of Dickens' own works, particularly his American Notes (about his 1842 visit to the United States). I think I'll make that the book I read in February to mark his birthday. And if you're looking for a good rundown of the man's life and works, I certainly recommend Tomalin's volume for your consideration.

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