The name of Charles Dickens is hallowed along with Shakespeare, Gibbon and Keats as among the greatest of England's writers. His books are still widely read, albeit with some difficulty, today, but he is perhaps best known as the world's greatest screenwriter. This new biography is as exciting and easy to read as a novel, and reveals the Great Man - not for the first time - to be a man of secrets who enjoyed life greatly. With capsule reminders of the plots of the great novels the origins of the characters and their stories are related to Dicken's own life and the events occurring as they were written. The reader will grasp some indications of the man's personal magnetism, which brought him a wide circle of friends distinguished and ordinary, and also filled the largest auditoriums on both sides of the Atlantic for his readings from his works. Perhaps as never before this book brings Dickens the man to the reader - warts and all. He was so much more than an amicable bon viveur with a plum pudding and a glass of claret. He knew pain and depression, ill-temper and despotism, and a shocking disinterest in his own children. His now celebrated extra-marital relationship, hidden during his lifetime and for decades afterwards, is discussed in as much detail as research allows. This book is warmly recommended to anyone who has thrilled to any of the Dickens novels or even to the movies made from them, or to whom the Artful Dodger, Sam Weller, Sarey Gamp, Scrooge and all the others are an unavoidable part of their culture. The only slight blemish is that the account of his meeting with Dostoievsky was revealed to be spurious, probably fraudulent, only after publication.
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54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
The master of English literatureNov. 18 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Charles Dickens has created thousand of unforgettable characters, and he was also known as a hard-working journalist and as a writer of essays. He was buried-against his wishes-in Westminster Abbey. His life was short. He died at the age of 58. But one can really doubt whether other writers who lived-or would live-longer-could achieve what Dickens had managed in such a short time. In 1862 the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, an ardent admirer of Dickens who read "The Pickpick Papers" and "David Copperfield" in prison, visited Dickens in London. Dickens told the Russian that there "were two people in him: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people, I asked?", added Dostoyevsky. In fact, he was right: Dickens had many personalities in him and Claire Tomalin did a wonderful job in trying to describe the many faces of this titan of literature. She writes about his successes and failures. Dickens was extremely successful everywhere and his tour to the United States only proved this. But there were also those, among them his daughter Katey, who despised him and regarded him as an evil man. Another Russian writer, Tolstoy, confessed that all of Dickens' characters were his friends, adding that he kept a portrait of the novelist in his room and considered Dickens to be the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. This book is splendid, with many new revelations about Dickens' family. The very qualities which made Dickens would eventually destroy him. A gem of a book and highly recommended!
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
A Great Book by a Great WriterNov. 18 2011
Donald E. Graham
- Published on Amazon.com
Claire Tomalin is an unfailingly wonderful writer. She has told familiar stories very well (Hardy, Shelley, Jane Austen); has brought unknown stories to life (Mrs. Jordan's Profession; An Unknown Woman) and re-introduced us to the amazing Samuel Pepys.
Her Charles Dickens is a fantastic book on a great subject. There are other lives of Dickens (many of them much longer). In Tomalin's, Dickens seems to leap off the pages. He is boundlessly energetic; he is inconceivably brilliant; he binds friends to him for life. But he treats his children horribly, and not them alone.
It is a well-known story, enriched by Tomalin's unique understanding of the life of Nelly Ternan, Dickens' late-in-life mistress. Nelly is a complicated story herself, but the reader comes to share the author's admiration for her character and for the difficult choices she made (all but one, perhaps).
This book is a splendid introduction to two great writers: Charles Dickens and Claire Tomalin. Read it, and go on to any of her other books (I particularly recommend Pepys and Mrs. Jordan)
72 of 87 people found the following review helpful
not very goodDec 12 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Like another reviewer, I came to this biography with high hopes, which were disappointed. I've read most of the biographies of Dickens, and this is just not very good. It is quite superficial in the real sense: it is all about the surface of Dickens' life -- the book is all about his movements from here to there, one damn thing after another, one contract after another, one publication after another. There's no depth to it. The books are hardly dealt with at all, we get a couple of paragraphs on each (one is reminded of the Woody Allen joke about how, after taking a speed reading course, he was able to read War and Peace in 15 minutes, and when asked what the book was about, replied, "Russia"). After a while, you just get bored with what, on any measure, was one of the most interesting lives ever. The book is also uneven: the beginning is quite expansive, with a couple of nicely written descriptive passages, and stage setting (e.g. Rochester and environs), but all of that then disappears. Probably Tomalin started to write a richer biography and then realized that it would be 1000 pages long, and started cutting, which (if true) was a mistake. Dickens is worth 1000 pages, if it is INTERESTING!
There's a nice discussion of Dickens' work with Angela Burdett Coutts to assist prostitutes in London (a deliberate counterpoint to his mistressing). And the late domestic situation is told quite deftly (which one would expect from Tomalin). But overall, disappointing.
So at the moment, we are left with no "go to" up-to-date balanced, well-rounded biography of Dickens. Slater is about the writer, mostly, and is a slog to get through (he's sort of the "fill in the writer" gap of Tomalin). Ackroyd gets some of the feel of the wildness of Dickens' world, but is kind of crazy (sometimes crazy good, and sometimes just self-indulgent). Kaplan's bio is ok but not inspiring. I haven't read "Becoming Dickens" which could be good, about the first part of his life. We'll see. Maybe all these writers should be put together in a room and tasked with writing a team bio. That may be what Dickens requires.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Well-written, informative and highly readableApril 21 2012
J C E Hitchcock
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Kindle version lacks illustrationsJan. 18 2012
Charles R. Baker
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a brilliant biography but be warned: the Kindle edition, except for a few small maps, does not include the many pages of illustrations found in the hardcover edition. How I wish Amazon would give such information in the Product Details; it would save me the trouble of returning the item for a refund.