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.