November 2011

Dickens’ path to greatness

By Claire Tomalin
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Award-winning biographer Claire Tomalin now turns her attention to Charles Dickens in a substantial new work. Building on her earlier biography of Ellen Ternan—the young actress Dickens left his wife for—Tomalin surveys the broad expanse of Dickens’ life, from his professional successes to his personal failings. The result is an engaging, clear-eyed account of a most complex writer and man.

Tomalin gives each of Dickens’ biographical personae its due: We meet the child-laborer son of a bankrupt father, the energetic and talented young man sketching sympathetic portraits of London workers, the actor and performer, the champion of the poor and finally the writer, dipping his head in cold water to keep working through the night. Dickens’ preternatural energy as an author—seen in his ability to write two novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, simultaneously for monthly serial publication—and his lifelong concern for the underdog brought him acclaim, wealth and enthusiastic readers in both England and America.

Haunted, however, by his lonely and impoverished childhood, Dickens could also drive a hard bargain, alienating friends and publishers in his single-minded pursuit of financial security. And despite claiming that his marriage to Catherine Dickens was unhappy, he nonetheless fathered 10 children in 20 years by her, increasing the domestic and financial stresses he felt so keenly. His attraction to innocent girl-women resulted not only in the creation of impossibly virtuous characters like Little Dorrit, but also in an abiding interest in London prostitutes.

Dickens’ affair with Ternan ultimately tore apart his family and dissolved some of his professional relationships. Tomalin carefully and fairly considers the evidence for the birth and death of an illegitimate child born to the couple, shedding light on a biographical secret that went unspoken for decades. In doing so, she brings the light and dark of Dickens’ personality into focus, the virtue he pursued and the vice that bedeviled him.

Tomalin’s Charles Dickens is a masterful balancing act, presenting the great artist as a fallible human without ever losing sight of the miracle of his literary achievements and the generosity of his spirit.

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Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594203091

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