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Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

July 22, 2012

To start off my Dickens discovery I read this fabulous biography of Charles Dickens, written by one of my favourite biographers Claire Tomalin. You can see my review of her book about Samuel Pepys here.

Tomalin had already covered Dickens in her previous book The Invisible Woman, a biography of Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan, which is being made into a film as we speak. So she covers this subject heavily in this book.

In Charles Dickens: A Life, Tomalin does a tremendous job. Not only does she cover his family background and personal life but also includes helpful summaries of all his writing and draws comparisons between events in his life and his writing. The ties between Dickens’ life and writing bind the book together perfectly.

She writes sympathetically of his sufferings during childhood, sent out to work at a very young age with big gaps in his education, his father being sent to debtors prison, moving continuously from house to house. She brings the reader back to these early years throughout the book, so that we can see the influence these events had on Dickens in later life. We also see how he keeps his early life a secret only really wanting it to be fully known after his death.

We see how early heart-break effected his ability to show affection and love for the rest of his life. His troubled relationships with his wife and his ten mostly unwanted children. Dickens form hugely strong friendships with many people and yet seemed incapable of loving those closest to him, his wife and children. It is in his relationships that as a reader I find myself disliking Dickens’ as a person. Poor Catherine Dickens his wife seems to be little more than an accessory to him from the offset. He felt he should take a wife therefore she did. He fathered 10 children with her during their 22 year marriage and then she was cast off, for Ellen Ternan with whom he had a 12 year relationship and possible had a son who died in infancy.

Although the book gives a very bad impression of Dickens’ behaviour regarding his marriage and dealings with his children it is impossible not to admire his greatness as a both a writer and through his good works. Tomalin’s vivid description of his working habits and non stop activity, really give the sence that Dickens’ was something very special.

I enjoyed reading the descriptions of Dickens’ walks around London and also the many houses which he lived in. The author really gives a sence of his surroundings and this adds to the general experience of the book.

The book features a fantastic conclusion and ties up the lives of everyone else featured in the book. Tomalin gives lots oif information on how our extensive knowledge of Dickens’ came to be, from the first biography by his good friend Forster to the accounts of his daughter Katey. She also mentions the gaps in our knowledge and the questions that will never be answered. Most of these relating to his relationship with Ellen Ternan, which all involved did everything they could to conceal.

I could write about this book all day. It is so packed with details of Dickens’ life that as a reader you feel that you know the man once you have closed the book for the last time. I would recommend everyone read this book, whether a fan of his work or not. The book gives a great snap shot at the time of Dickens and the way society worked across all classes. It also features some other prominent literary figures of the time including, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope who were friends of Dickens.

The book has definitely increased my interest in Dickens and Victorian London and made me want to read more.

Look out for more Dickens related posts coming up soon including my review of the Dickens exhibition at the Museum of London and my Dickens reading list challenge.

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