Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review of Charles Dickens

For about a year, I knew Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens would be released in 2012, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Because Dickens is tied with Jane Austen as my favorite author, I eagerly awaited its release.

Tomalin’s research is amazing. If I wanted to know where Charles Dickens was on any given day, there’s a good chance she wrote about it. This is no easy feat because the man was constantly on the move. With the success of the serializations of his novels, he had the money to travel back and forth to the Continent and to the United States as well. But what I wanted out of this biography was to get into the man’s head. I wanted to know what magic he used in creating Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Havisham, Uriah Heep, Pip, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, etc. But it is not in this book. Perhaps, it is not in any book.

When Tomalin gets away from tracking the whereabouts of Dickens, the book can be quite interesting as when she writes of Dickens’ friendship with the wealthiest woman in England, Amanda Coutts. At his suggestion, Miss Coutts established Urania House, a home that provided shelter and rehabilitation to hundreds of London’s destitute women, shining a light on Dickens’ empathy for the least amongst us. Surprisingly, Tomalin writes little about his books where these injustices are exposed.

There is also Dickens’ tour of America. Although his novels were hugely popular in the United States, he received almost no royalties as his works were pirated. Unable to rectify the situation, he returned to Britain an angry man and wrote a book about his travels, Dickens in America, that was critical of Americans' manners, morality, and fascination with celebrity. It was so acerbic that it cost him the friendship of American writer, Washington Irving.

Dickens’ family life is little more than a recitation of the birth of his ten children and his increasingly unhappy marriage. Other than his preference for daughters over sons and Mrs. Coutts paying for the education of his eldest son, I can’t remember much about any of them. But it was with the arrival of his mistress, Ellen Ternan, that I closed the book. I did not want to wade through the muck of his failed marriage and affair with Ternan, a woman 27 years his junior.  I decided I was asking too much of Dickens. The man was a genius and gave us some of literature's best-loved novels,  David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorritt, and so many others. They are a gift to the ages, and that should be enough for anyone.


  1. Mary,

    What an illuminating review. I, too, have been curious about Tomalin's biography and wondering if I should get it for my personal collection. After your review, which touched upon many of my concerns, I think I'd wait for the library copy.

    Like you, I'd much prefer to read how he developed his characters than his relationship with Ellen Ternan. I really don't care to read that kind of salacious details--my tabloid addiction not withstanding.

    Thanks much for the review!

  2. Mary, very interesting! It's too bad he became so angry with America and too bad his work was pirated here. :(

  3. I like your review Mary. However I disagree with you over his relationship with Ellen Ternan. We can't turn away from the reality of what happened. We are all flawed, me you and Charles Dickens.
    As for learning about how he developed his characters. That happened in Charles Dickens mind. We can't possibly know. But Claire Tomlin relates how he walked the streets of London at night. He was an insatiable observer. He listened to people talking, the nuances of their accents, the phrases, the intonations, the rhythms of their speech. He saw the poverty, the wealth and the interactions between people. He himself is quoted by Tomlin as saying he had a mind like a very sensitive photographic plate. He could remember and use people and situations many years later when he could bring up the memory of siutaions and people to use in his novels. He could remeber things so vividly.Doesn't all that answer your question?
    As you say he was a genius. He was no more more flawed than any of us.
    As another great genius said, Oscar Wilde, and hearing about your sensitivity to lifes unpleasantness you probably don't want to think too much about him either,

    "I may be lying in the gutter but I am looking at the stars."

    I know I am. me and Oscar together and yes, Charles.

  4. Tony, All those insights by Tomalin were smothered by an almost daily recitation of "where is Charles today?" Why weren't the books discussed at length? They are more important to us than knowing that he stopped on his journey home from Italy so that he might write a letter to Forster. The whole thing is weighted heavily on the less important things, in my opinion.

    As for Oscar, I wouldn't even attempt a bio. I have no problem with his being homosexual. It was his deflowering of so many youths that bothers me. As with Dickens, we have Oscar's work, and that's enough.