In a way, I grew up with Dickens, as I was born in Rochester, the city which has become most closely associated with him (although he never actually lived there), and my father, an English teacher, was a keen Dickens enthusiast. He would often take us on excursions to places associated with the great man or his novels, especially when I was studying "Great Expectations" for O-Level. I was therefore already familiar with the broad outlines of Dickens's life story, although there was still a lot for me to learn, as I quickly realised from reading Claire Tomalin's book.
Obviously, there will not be room in a single volume to set out all the known facts about Dickens's life, and Ms Tomalin concentrates on a few key themes. The first is the influence, generally negative, of Dickens's parents, especially his father, and his upbringing. John Dickens, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, earned a salary which would have enabled him to live in middle-class comfort had he not suffered from a chronic inability to live within his means, something which led to his being imprisoned for debt. As a result Charles had to leave school and work for a time in a blacking factory until a legacy enabled his father's debts to be paid off.
Although the work in the blacking factory was not particularly onerous by the standards of early nineteenth century child labour, the young Dickens appears to have been scarred by the experience, which affected him in two ways. On the one hand, it left him with a deep sympathy for the poor and a concern for social justice, something reflected in most of his novels. On the other hand, his father's example also left him with an abiding distaste for both financial improvidence and snobbery. (John Dickens's fecklessness was rooted in a belief that he was a "gentleman" and had the right to live like one, even if he lacked the financial means). Profligacy seems to have been hereditary in the Dickens family, because several of the novelist's brothers, and all of his sons apart from the youngest, Henry, were also noted spendthrifts who ran up debts they were unable to pay. As a result, they looked for financial assistance to their successful brother or father, something which was a considerable source of family tensions.
Another key theme is Dickens's unhappy marriage. His very public separation from his wife Catherine caused a scandal at the time and caused him to become estranged from several former friends, including Thackeray and Mark Lemon. Although Dickens was far from being the only man of letters to have treated his wife badly (by comparison with Byron he looks like a pillar of matrimonial rectitude), this episode has remained notorious to this day, probably because of the contrast between Dickens's public and private personas. Dickens was the high priest of the Victorian Cult of the Family, the man whose writings, more than those of any other author, celebrated the joys of hearth and home; he even called the magazine he edited "Household Words". It therefore must have come as a shock to his readers to discover that this respected paterfamilias, the father of ten children, was deeply dissatisfied with his own marriage. (His relationships with his children were equally difficult as he regarded them all as a disappointment, again with the exception of Henry who won a scholarship to Cambridge and went on to a distinguished career in the law).
I have never really been able to understand, either from this book or anywhere else, just what Catherine had done to alienate her husband. Probably because she had not actually done anything; it was more likely yet another case of a middle-aged man making a fool of himself over a pretty young girl. The nature of Dickens's relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan has always been contentious. Ms Tomalin is firmly convinced that it was a sexual one, and even believes that Ellen may have borne Dickens an illegitimate son, but she fairly concedes that there is no hard evidence to prove this and that other recent biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, have concluded that the relationship remained platonic. Dickens seems to have been good at concealing his tracks when it came to sexual matters. There has been plenty of speculation, for example, about his relations with his sisters-in-law Mary and Georgina, to both of whom he seemed extremely attached, but there is no definite evidence of any impropriety having taken place.
Another running theme is Dickens's lifelong fascination with the theatre. He did not write much for the stage, for which we can be grateful, given that few early Victorian dramas have stood the test of time and that any serious attempt to make a career as a dramatist would probably have detracted from his work as a novelist. He did, however, seriously consider becoming a professional actor as a young man, counted leading actors such as William Macready among his friends and was a regular theatregoer. Towards the end of his life he was able to indulge his passion for acting by giving dramatic readings from his works. These were immensely popular and therefore immensely lucrative, at a time when he felt he had a large number of dependent relatives to support, which is why he concentrated so much upon them during this period. These reading tours around Britain, Ireland and America were, however, also extremely stressful, and there has been speculation that they exacerbated his health problems and led to his early death. They certainly led to a diminution in his once-prodigious work rate; after "Great Expectations" in 1861 he was only able to complete one further novel in his last nine years.
Some of the information was new to me, for example the fact that Dickens was an ardent Francophile and spent much of his time in France. (His Francophilia is not always apparent from his works, especially "A Tale of Two Cities"). Some of Ms Tomalin's emphases struck me as rather inappropriate, for example the stress laid upon Dickens's republicanism. While he might have expressed republican views in private he did not, as far as I am aware, criticise the monarchy publicly, and could be fulsome in his praise of Queen Victoria. When he had an opportunity to see a republican society at close hand, on his visit to America in 1842, he was not impressed; in fact, he loathed just about everything about the country. (He was, partially, to change his views on a later visit in the 1860s). On the other hand, Ms Tomalin appears to play down the influence of Dickens's religious beliefs; whenever she comes across some pious sentiment in his diary or letters she dismisses it with a comment along the lines of "Surely he didn't believe that?"
One thing Ms Tomalin does get right in my view is the balance between Dickens's life and his books Although this is primarily a biography, not a literary-critical study, some appreciation of a writer's works is always essential in literary biographies, and all the novels, and many of the short stories and novellas are treated in some depth. She can be quite a sharp critic- she has some fault to find with virtually all the novels, apart from "Great Expectations" which she describes as "almost perfect".
This was the second biography by Claire Tomalin I have read, the other being "The Unequalled Self" about Pepys. Like that book, this one is well-written and informative and a highly readable introduction to the life of its subject.