Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (Viking)

Charles Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, but as F.R. Leavis once observed, he was speaking of the novel, not the character. Nevertheless there are many parallels between CD and DC. Feckless parents, an unsuitable marriage, the parliamentary reporting, a successful writing career… In the novel, the last of these is the least plausible; David lacks the percipience, the edge of his creator. Dickens was that much overused noun, a genius. Virginia Woolf once remarked that George Eliot was the only Victorian novelist who wrote for grownups, which simply demonstrated her inability to read Dickens. He is often criticised for his sentimental excesses, as Eliot is not, and yet who has ever finished Daniel Deronda? It is perhaps impossible for the modern reader to engage with the Victorian love of sentiment: the taste for it had already disappeared by the time Oscar Wilde declared he couldn’t read Little Nell’s deathbed scene without bursting out laughing.

That Dickens created great characters is a commonplace, but it’s often said dismissively, as if character were another word for caricature. Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Mrs Gamp, Pecksniff, The Artful Dodger, Fagin … so many of Dickens’s characters, even the minor characters, have a signature line that metonymically suggests the messy complexity of a whole human being. His besetting fault as a novelist – it goes with his sentimentality – is his inability to portray female characters as anything other than saints, comic grotesques, or melodramatically fallen women. To be fair, many of his male characters fit within similar broad categories as well. Yet he presses these archetypes into astonishing life: Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit and Jingle in The Pickwick Papers may be pantomime villains, but we recognize them as we recognize people we know; and their vitality, expressed through their dialogue, delights us as much today as it did audiences 150 years ago.

Dickens’s proverbial sentences are as embedded in the language as Shakespeare’s. “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose”; “Accidents will occur in the best-regulated families”; “True as taxes”; “Procrastination is the thief of time”: often extravagant, his prose can also be as pithy as Jane Austen’s.

His life is like the complicated plot of one of his longer novels, and his biographers have to be very fit to keep up. Dickens is writing a novel, and chastising one of his sons, and arguing with a publisher, and delivering a public reading, and editing a periodical, and acting in a play, and romancing the young actress Nellie Ternan, and administering a charity, and running off to Paris – all, it seems, at the same time. And the biographers have a dilemma: how much attention to give the many books? Are they to evaluate them? Provide the social context? Summarise their publishing history and critical reception?

The greatest of the biographies – the one on which all others have heavily leaned – is that by Dickens’s contemporary and closest friend, John Forster. But Forster was constrained by tact and delicacy – he knew of the Nelly Ternan affair, but could hardly write about it without sullying her reputation and that of England’s best-loved, most revered novelist. The various lacunae of Forster’s text have vexed those who desired to see where Forster drew a veil, and Claire Tomalin’s new biography must satisfy all but the most prurient.

An experienced biographer, Tomalin has written on Dickens and Nelly Ternan’s relationship before, as well as on Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Pepys, Hardy, Austen and Shelley. One of her many considerable achievements here is to convey the essential modernity of Dickens. The sentiment that we find hard to stomach these days was integral to his style, but it was also at least in part a concession to his public, who demanded it; and alongside it on almost every page of the major novels we find not only great shrewdness of observation and penetrating analysis of human behaviour, but also how human behaviour changed with the advent of industrialisation. Dickens, like Shakespeare and Sophocles, was a psychologist before psychology was invented.

Tomalin moves adroitly from the life to the work and back again, with something of the novelist’s zest. The pace of her narrative leaves the reader a bit breathless, which is only as it should be. She seems to me to single out the right novels for praise, although I would rank Martin Chuzzlewit and Our Mutual Friend among his masterpieces, and Hard Times is not the slight affair she says it is. Two hundred years after his birth, it is hard to see Dickens clearly, distinct from the myth his public created around him, and in which he himself colluded. Again and again in his novels he extolled the virtues and happiness to be found around the domestic hearth, yet he was unhappily married and distant from most of his many children. He seems to have found his greatest enjoyment in jocular male company, and in the long, solitary, nocturnal walks he took throughout his life.

Dickens died at the early age of fifty-eight, exhausted and broken by the lengths to which he drove himself, and especially by the physically demanding, enormously popular public readings he performed at home and abroad. Claire Tomalin’s portrait of this greatest of English novelists is as comprehensive, as fair, and as perceptive as any reader could wish.


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Tim Tweets