Charles Dickens: A Life - Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens: A Life - Claire Tomalin

I like reading biography. There's something fascinating about picking out the details of a person's life from letters and diaries and memoirs. This is the first one I've read for pleasure, as opposed to university study, and as biographies go it's a good one.

 

It's fairly hefty, at 527 pages, but it never drags: Tomalin is, generally, good at giving just enough detail without overwhelming the narrative with minutiae.

 

The takeaway for me was this: Dickens, it turns out, was kind of a nasty piece of work. He married his wife, Catherine, essentially for sex; they had ten children, seven of them unwanted, not that this stopped him sleeping with her. It's not as if contraception didn't exist, either, as Tomalin points out (she's clearly on the side of the women here, though to her credit she doesn't demonise Dickens). He separated from her after twenty-two years of marriage, during which she was pretty much constantly pregnant, publicly called her all sorts of names and very probably seduced the young actress Ellen Ternan. It's conjectured quite convincingly that Ternan had a child by him who died; in any case he constantly silenced her, putting his reputation before her well-being at all points.

 

Nice guy, Charles Dickens. Not that this is a shock: even in his books he can't write convincing women.

 

He did run a Home for prostitutes; he did speak out about the terrible conditions in which the poor lived; he did support a woman accused of infanticide, rescuing her from the death penalty, as Tomalin points out in the prologue. He was, as all people are, a contradiction, a mixture of good and bad, and this biography does a great job of drawing those qualities out.