He rubbed shoulders with the great and the poor of his world. He drew crowds at public appearances in London and America. He was nicknamed “a special correspondent for posterity”, labelled “flamboyant” and “a great humourist” but disparaged for his private life. His works are a living testament to the comedy and tragedy of the everyday life of his times. He fathered 10 children and countless heroes, whose names ring a bell to this day.
Charles Dickens, born 200 years ago this year, was from an early age possessed with an uninhibited sense of self-worth that eventually caused him to refer to himself as “the inimitable”. Inimitable he was indeed, in character and in achievements, rising to become one of the most celebrated writers of the English language.
Story of a life
Born into a family that stood on the edge of gentility as it struggled with debt and a large brood of offspring, his early life was marked by close encounters with the poverty and toil of the London scene of the early 19th century. Toing and froing between the world of the prison – his father was arrested over debt – and that of menial work as he was forced to make a living for himself, Dickens was provided with ample opportunity to explore streets and houses marked by noise, dirt, overcrowding, child labour, disease and prostitution.
Stints in the law courts and in parliament as a reporter further formed a mind that was already deeply interested in political life and social reform. Shying away from entering the political arena himself, either as an MP or as a reporter, Dickens chose to dedicate himself to writing, thinking this would do more good in exposing social ills that were pervasive but remained largely ignored and untreated.
The result was a tremendous, decade-long output of magazine stories and book-length novels whose brilliant cast of memorable characters – Oliver Twist’s Fagin, Mr. Bumble and the Artful Dodger; Scrooge, or the ’umble Uriah Heep who disgusted David Copperfield so much, to name a few – captivated readers rich and poor while brushing a stark portrait of the condition of England.
But writing was not so much an isolated activity as the result of constant engagement with people and places around him. A busy social diary saw Dickens dabble with the theatrical world, a passion he maintained throughout his life and that was to provide some defining personal encounters.
As an editor he ran the magazine Household Words, an outlet for his views on social ills that was often powered by the serialisation of his own works. He performed charity officially and unofficially, setting up and supporting a home for prostitutes and homeless women.
An indefatigable traveller, his energetic night-time walks through London’s poorer and less salubrious areas provided him with a constantly updated picture of his surroundings, which he was able to contrast with conditions on the continent during numerous trips to France, Italy and Switzerland.
Back at home, he enjoyed the company of, or despaired over, his ten children and his wife, the latter eventually replaced by a mistress whose precise role remained a secret until long after his death in 1870.
Claire Tomalin does justice to all these aspects of Dickens’ life and personality, in this biography whose wealth of information but well-paced delivery makes for a brisk, engaging and accessible read. In 400 pages, mostly chronological, the 58 years of Dickens’ life are retraced amid a rich cast of parents, siblings, children, friends and professional contacts that provide an attractive portrait of the many worlds of which he was part.
Sometimes sweeping in her eulogy of England’s “national treasure”, Tomalin nonetheless also explores some of the darker sides of Dickens’ character, particularly in his relationship with Catherine, his wife of 22 years with whom he separated in an unnecessarily brusque and public manner. The immediate cause of the estrangement, one-time child actress Ellen Ternan, is the subject of an earlier biography by Tomalin, who provides many an insight into the 12 years of Dickens’ affair with the actress, an affair that was long kept under wraps and still keeps its fair share of mystery.
Much of Dickens’ literary production comes up for criticism too, often being found twee, grotesque, weak or overly theatrical. But such criticism is placed in the context of Dickens’ showy character and of contemporary tastes, while also being sympathetic to the plight of a man whose daily occupations were as astonishingly varied as the deadlines and demands on his time were numerous and pressing.
Maps and pictures galore
As well as being an entertaining and timely biography of a still popular figure, Charles Dickens is an attractively crafted object to have on one’s shelves. The hardback copy is richly illustrated: inserts of paintings and photographs and a series of hand-drawn maps of London and Rochester are complemented by Kyd’s original representations of the larger-than-life, imperishable characters of Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, Pickwick and the awful Mr. Bumble adorning the inside covers.
Buy the Book
Charles Dickens: A Life
By Claire Tomalin
Hardback, 527 pages, illustrated
Viking, 2011, GBP 30