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Charles Dickens: A Life

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  2,688 ratings  ·  303 reviews
Award-winning author Claire Tomalin sets the standard for sophisticated and popular biography, having written lives of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas Hardy, among others. Here she tackles the best recognized and loved man of nineteenth-century England, Charles Dickens; a literary leviathan whose own difficult path to greatness inspired the creation of classic novels ...more
ebook, 576 pages
Published October 2011 by Penguin Books
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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·Karen·
Claire Tomalin is a no-nonsense schoolmarm of a biographer, marshalling her facts into order and marching them across the page in seemly double crocodile lines, one two one two. A sort of Joyce Grenfell type, pleasant, but firm - George, don't do that - No, Susan, put Sydney down dear - No, Neville, you can't go home. The effect of this patting and prodding and pummelling into shape is that Dickens' life appears oddly reduced. The Slater biography gives the impression of a man constantly struggl ...more
Jason Koivu
Oh! Now it all makes sense! Now I understand why so many of the characters in Dickens' novels seem so theatrically dramatic. Read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin and you too can unlock such mysteries as they expertly unfold in this top-notch biography!

After reading so many of his novels I figured it was high time I got to know the man behind the words. Tomalin combines his personal story with just enough historical detail while sprinkling in a compact summary and review of all of his w
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MJ Nicholls
This breakneck biography touches upon all the important events of Boz’s blistering life, omitting the copious detail on his journalism covered in Michael Slater’s exhaustively entertaining tome, along with too many of the pivotally opinionated rants on social reform and whatnot. Tomalin is stronger on Dickens’s personal relationships, especially with women and male friends, and creates a more emotional portrait of a restless but tormented man, in comparison with Slater’s love-in where Dickens is ...more
Jan-Maat
Oct 06, 2013 Jan-Maat added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jan-Maat by: My Mum
This is a brisk biography that demonstrates the value of knowing and discussing the author's life in considering their written work.

Briskly pacing through the life as Dickens walked through city and countryside the four hundred pages of text seem slight. At every turn there was potential for Tomalin to depart the narrow path and have a digression on mesmerism or any of the people that Dickens brushed past or dealt with. These are summed up in a sentence if at all. When Edwin Landseer was mention
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Mary Ronan Drew
Charles Dickens was a monster. I know, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy raising money for charitable causes. I know, he was sympathetic to the poor, demonstrated their plight in his books, and fought for social reform. I know, he was the most popular writer of the 19th century and his books are still read today, in part because of the vivid caricatures, those children of his fertile imagination.

But his ego was monumental. He was selfish on a scale hard to imagine, he was sarcastic ab
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Maggie
This is more of a 3.5, but certainly not a 4. Tomalin took on a great challenge - telling the story of Dickens (an oft-told tale) in a mere 400 some-odd pages. What we get is a solid overview of Dickens' life. We start with his complex and often sad childhood, the frenzy and energy of his early years, his struggle in middle age to find understanding and security, and finally the crisis of Nelly Ternan and his decline. Tomalin is particularly strong in the early chapters, her care in charting Dic ...more
Book Riot Community
An impressively readable biography that will give you so much insight into what drove Dickens to write what he did. Tomalin successfully walks a fine line: she lets Dickens be the genius that he was, but she never lets him off the hook for being a jerk (and he was often a jerk). Hero worship in biographies of “great” men and women bothers me to no end, and there’s none of that here. If you know little to nothing about Dickens and just want an intro course, go here.

From Our Favorite Biographies o
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Ben Dutton
It is a monumental task. To summarise a life – especially a life like Dickens’ – into a 400 page volume. If anybody was up to the task, it would be Claire Tomalin, biographer extraordinaire. Her Charles Dickens: A Life is a rambunctious, whistle-stop tour through the life of one of Britain’s – nay, the world’s – greatest novelists (if not the greatest?). It takes in births, marriages, deaths, affairs, walks, and shines a light into the dirty corners of the great man’s life. His affair with Nelly ...more
Jane
Feb 13, 2012 Jane rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Biography buffs and history hunters.
Shelves: biography
Where I got the book: my local library.

Claire Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen has been on my bookshelf for what seems like 20 years, although the Goodreads editions roundup has 1997 as the earliest date. Whatever. I'm quite surprised, seeing how much I enjoyed that biography, that Charles Dickens: A Life is only the second Tomalin biography I've read.

From this very limited sample I would say that you go to Tomalin for the close-up, human portrait of your subject. In 417 pages of narrative, To
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F.R.
Charles Dickens was such an alive and energetic figure, a ball of energy who seemed to dominate and encapsulate his age; so much so that to read about his life – even these two hundred years later – is to be inspired, invigorated and somewhat dazed. For most people those heavy books alone would have been difficult to manage, let alone the reading tours, plays, charitable pursuits and overseas tours (let alone an extremely complex personal life). He was a complicated man, one who seems to have be ...more
Judy
This was a fascinating and comprehensive look at the life of Dickens. We learn how his own childhood, with his father's inability to manage money, which led him and the family to go to debtors' prison, also led a very young Charles Dickens to work in a "blacking factory," which made him a lifelong advocate for children's rights and for a better way to deal with the poor.

It's also easy to see in following Dickens' life how much of the personal became the professional in his writing. As a writer,
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Tig
Balanced, clear, very readable and gave what I imagine is a very accurate picture of the contradictions of Dickens' characer. Without fudging his more unpleasant aspects (he appears to have been a terrible father, for example: partisan, uninterested and burdened)it also stresses his immense warmth and likeability. I would have liked more quotation from his letters and diaries and perhaps slightly less detail about his huge circle of friends and how often he met with/went on holiday with/walked w ...more
Kimberly
Claire Tomalin knows how to write a biography, that's a fact. If you haven't read Tomalin's Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys biography, I hope you will. Both were excellent. Tomalin's books are well-researched, thoughtful, and she's good at putting all the pieces together. But Charles Dickens A Life was a bit painful and I think it was because frequently Dickens was a monster (Samuel Pepys was no boy scout but I didn't have any expectations that he was). Dickens could also be more generous than anyo ...more
Elaine
Little did I know when I started reading this book weeks ago that I would finish it the day before the Bicentennial of Dickens' birthday -- February 7, 2012. Now I am surrounded by Dickens stories on NPR, the NYT, announcements about Dickens events and reenactments of his readings from major museums and libraries -- and the first Dickens exhibit at the Museum of London in 40 years. Wow!
There are lots of biographies of Dickens out there (including the one authorized by Dickens and written by his
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Jenny Brown
Clair Tomalin is always a pleasure to read, and with each new biography she writes my respect for her grows. She is on the brief list of authors I'd love to dine with.

I loved her earlier book about Ellen Ternan, Dicken's secret lover, so I was very curious to see what she's do with a full-length Dickens bio. I wish I could say this book blew me away, but it didn't. As others have remarked, the part that covers his early life is extremely good, but there are oddities in the way the rest of the s
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David Williams
Claire Tomalin is one of my favourite biographers (her work on Jane Austen, for example, is outstanding) and this may be her best book yet, not least because she conveys so vividly and with such well-researched evidence the complexities and contradictions that made up the life and character of Charles Dickens, and reflects just the right amount of light on the novels where life and story meet.

In particular, she contrasts the genuine sympathy that Dickens felt for suffering humanity (which led hi
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Judy
I'm a long-time Dickens fan and have read several biographies of him before this one, as well as the complete Pilgrim letters, so a lot of the material in this book was already familiar to me. I found Tomalin's writing style very readable and her love of Dickens comes across, although I think she is sometimes a bit dismissive in her brief accounts of the various novels and stories. For instance she says that the very late short story 'George Silverman's Explanation' is a failure - I can't agree; ...more
Galena Sanz
Después de la pequeña decepción que me causó la única obra de Dickens que leí hasta la fecha, David Copperfield, seguí teniendo un ligero interés en su persona y como el libro estaba de oferta me lancé a comprarlo y a leerlo.

Dickens fue un hombre que supo salir de la pobreza gracias a su talento, que estaba enormemente dedicado a sus causas benéficas, pues nunca olvidaría la dura vida de la gente pobre de Londres, pero al mismo tiempo me parece un hombre exigente, egocéntrico, un mal marido, nad
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Mark Glover
Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens offers us an insight into the creation of the modern celebrity for surely this is what Dickens became in his life time, it also offer us a model of how someone with the right conviction and moral standing can use their celebrity and talent to change the world and society. The Dickens we are shown in the book is no saint however, but rather an incredibly complex character who could display deep empathy to those less fortunate but also prove cruel or indiffere ...more
Joe Tristram
I don't generally read biography, so when this was suggested as our next book club read I set out with not much enthusiasm, alleviated a bit by the fact that I like reading Dickens. It was (mostly) wonderful! I thought CT got the right balance of telling a story and laying out the REAMS of information that she clearly had about this man. I have visions of her writing with boxes marked with the years of his life piled about her, each stuffed with letters, train tickets, party guest lists and play ...more
Darlene
I actually had very mixed feelings about reading this biography of Charles Dickens once I actually had it in my hands. I fell in love with the writings of Charles Dickens back when I was a teenager. I love the Victorian England time period. I loved the characters Dickens created... even the odious ones. I admired his superb ability to use the english language to create characters and scenes that were absolutely unforgettable to me. I think the thing that drew me to his writing was my discovery ...more
Suzy
I really enjoyed reading this book. Though it is a thick book (in a curiously old-fashioned looking binding) it was a quick read. I learned a lot about Dickens--one of my favorite writers--and realized that though I have read many of his most famous books, there are still a handful I haven't read (Pickwick Papers and Bleak House, for example). Perhaps he will be the third prolific writer on my to-read-all-works list (following Fitzgerald and Steinbeck). Dickens went to bat for many poor families ...more
Anastasia Hobbet
Having just written a happy review of Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys, I'm feeling a twinge of guilt about my response to this one. But to paraphrase Walter Lippmann, the facts far exceeded my curiosity. This book reads as if Tomalin scuttled along in Dickens' wake from his birth to his death, a particularly intimate secretary, annotating his daily calendar for him. From cover to cover, it's a long list of his activities: eating, drinking, entertaining, fornicating, fuming, buying and sellin ...more
Converse
I find the life (1812-1870)of the English novelist very interesting. Despite his father's repeated and self-inflicted money problems, which briefly had him working in a factory at age 12, Dickens managed to establish himself as a successful novelist in his 20s. Many of his novels were either published in short segments (about 30 pages) or were serialized in various periodicals he was associated with. His productivity, particularly as a young man when he might have several novels going at once, w ...more
Courtney Johnston
Claire Tomalin is a fantastic biographer. Her book on Samuel Pepys is one of my favourites of the past few years. On reflection, this may be because of Pepys's roguish charm - you could forgive all his peccadilloes, because he was just so much fun.

Getting to know Dickens better shows him as a man of energy, generosity, touches of genius, and the perhaps inevitable clay feet. 'Dickensian' as a word, as an idea, summons up a colourful character, eccentric, verbose, idiosyncratic. But underlying th
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Ruthiella
Please excuse the pun, but after finishing Clare Tomalin’s Dickens, A Life I thought, “He was the best of men, he was the worst of men.” Dickens was a force of nature, almost incapable of being idle. A prodigious and talented author and champion for the poor and downtrodden and the public loved him for it. He was also a lousy husband, an indifferent father and sometimes a vindictive friend, who ascribed to the “Do as I say and not as I do” principle.

This is the first biography of Charles Dicken
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John Behle
We all know a little of Charles Dickens. This well crafted, painstakingly researched page turner makes us smart about the man and his era.

Gritty Britain of the mid-1800s was marked by a brutal, punitive social climate. Dickens did much to push for reforms, laws, and just a new way of thinking through his writing. When that proved too slow, he paid to establish a home and school for fallen women. This progressive life is brilliantly painted by Claire Tomalin. Dickens, his art friends, and publis
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T P Kennedy
This is a perfectly competent biography. She assembles the facts and tells you what Dickens was up to one year after the next. There's some analysis of the books - not half enough for me. However, this is an unsympathetic biography. There's no real exploration of his genius with language and his impact on the written world. She's far more interested in sympathising with the people around him - there's a very strong sense on how terrible it must be to related to such a figure. Fundamentally, she ...more
Mauberley
If you don't love Dickens, I guess that you and I will never be in love. This is an insightful biography and a rollicking read that left me breathless in trying to imagine what it must have been like to have lived like Dickens. His energy, it seems, was exceeded only by his powers of invention. This is not a mash note to CD - Tomalin in no way glosses over Dickens' break with his wife. However, in her brief and perceptive notes on the novels, she reminds us why we loved every minute spent readin ...more
Miss GP
The book is obviously well-researched, but I found it on the dull side. I think a good biography should provide historical background in addition to simply relaying an individual's life, and that's where this book falls short. There's a lot of "He did this... and then he went there... and met ...." without very much context.
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Born Claire Delavenay in London, she was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge.

She became literary editor of the 'New Statesman' and also the 'Sunday Times'. She has written several noted biographies and her work has been recognised with the award of the 1990 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 1991 Hawthornden Prize for 'The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens'.

In
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More about Claire Tomalin...
Jane Austen: A Life Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self Thomas Hardy The Invisible Woman The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft

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“He saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation, and sometimes sobs.” 0 likes
“He could take on anything and everything, it seemed, rather than leave himself time to reflect on his dissatisfaction with his life and what he might do about it.” 0 likes
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