Jane's Reviews > Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
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's review
Feb 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography
Recommended for: Biography buffs and history hunters.
Read from February 06 to 13, 2012

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, Tomalin displays Dickens in all his contradictions: generous yet selfish, open-handed but capable of great secretiveness, a man of enormous warmth yet able to turn ice-cold on a friend or family member once he decided he was done with them.

My strongest impression was of Dickens' vast reserves of energy; he strides about the pages as he would walk the London streets, always immersed in action, always moving. Tomalin's narrative moves forward at a fast clip, eating up the years chronologically, although there are occasional irritating bursts of foretelling (to keep us reading? As if I wouldn't.)

I would say that Tomalin comes down on the side of Catherine Dickens in the story of the couple's doomed marriage, and on behalf of plump wives everywhere, I thank her. On the whole Dickens gets a poor rating as a husband, father, friend and even occasionally as a writer (it's certainly true that he wasn't always on top form in his books, but considering he wrote for serialization these were pretty much first drafts, an astounding thing when you think about it.)

Good bibliography and index, and lots of interesting photos including a very arresting one of the mature Dickens, clean-shaven. It is the clearest glimpse I've ever had of Dickens the businessman, and Dickens the man of susceptibility to the ladies. It's a shame they were inevitably such young ladies, but he clearly had a very Victorian ideal of womanhood and it wasn't his wife. Hmm, do you think Tomalin's sympathies were persuasive?

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Reading Progress

02/06 page 100
19.0% "p100 "...the consciousness that my books are enriching everybody connected with them but myself, and that I, with such a popularity as I have acquired, am struggling in old toils, and wasting my energies in the very height and freshness of my fame, and the best part of my life, to fill the pockets of others..." Dickens in a letter to his publisher. Plus ça change..."
02/08 page 252
48.0% "Apparently Dickens was clean-shaven with occasional mustache eruptions till 1852, became mustachioed in 1854 and grew that horrible bushy beard in 1856. This book contains a clean-shaven photo of the mature Dickens, and the guy has sexy lips! Who'd have guessed?"
02/09 page 289
55.0% "It was rather unfair of Dickens to complain that his wife was fat after keeping her permanently pregnant for all those years (10 children + at least 2 miscarriages by my count)!"
02/10 page 353
67.0% "Dickens does not seem to have got much joy out of his relationship with Ellen Ternan. Serves him right, really."
02/11 page 371
70.0% "I am getting near The End, as the narrative is only about 415 pages long (lots of endnotes & index). Ah Charlie, I still love ya."
07/19 marked as: read
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