Ben Dutton's Reviews > Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
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Feb 04, 12

Read in February, 2012

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 Ternan, his treatment of his children, the neglect and cruelty to his ex-wife in later years – all is exposed in thrilling, page-turning prose. For those who know nothing of Dickens’s life, this biography is most certainly the place to start.

Here, though, is the biography’s biggest problem: A life such as Dickens’s cannot be adequately summarised in just over 400 pages (417 to be precise). There are numerous moments in this biography where you wish Tomalin would just slow down, take pause, consider the true ramifications of a certain decision, or what such an affair truly meant to Dickens and to those who knew of it. Of course not all knowledge is at hand – Dickens was brutal at times to future biographers, burning letters, demanding correspondence kept by others be destroyed – and he knew in life how to protect his reputation intact. In many respects he was the proto-celebrity, a man whose every aspect of his life needed to be presented to the public in certain deliberate ways to help maintain the myth. If he were alive in the twenty-first century, it is certain Dickens would be employing the greatest PR men in the world: though it is certain his affair would have come out in the tabloid press.

Tomalin, then, has done something very admirable in her biography. She has distilled the essence of the man, laid him bare on the page, and told a cracking true story with deft skill, and with an eye on being fair, but not uncritical, to a man who deserves no less. I am sure Tomalin’s biography will remain the definitive word on the man for at least a decade now, and much read: but as with Dickens, there is always more to know, and I am certain this will not be the last word on the great man.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Richard (last edited Nov 23, 2012 07:59PM) (new) - added it

Richard Have you read any other biographies of Dickens, such as the ones by Peter Ackroyd or Michael Slater?


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Dutton I read the Peter Ackroyd one a while back - ten years or so - and really his was the definitive introduction as far as I was concerned. Ackroyd has had a lifelong engagement with the world of Dickens, even reworking Little Dorrit and its themes in his novel, The Great Fire of London. As such his biography is also essential reading for anybody interested in Dickens the man. As a good primer and overview though, I enjoyed the Tomalin, and such think it will last a good while yet and might be an easier entry point into somebody wanting to understand this most complex of novelists.


message 3: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Ben wrote: "I read the Peter Ackroyd one a while back - ten years or so - and really his was the definitive introduction as far as I was concerned. Ackroyd has had a lifelong engagement with the world of Dick..."

You're so right--it is Peter Ackroyd. I used his biography as a main source of information for a piece of short historical fiction I wrote on the family life of Dickens. So you'd think I would remember the author's name!


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