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Charles Dickens: A Life Hardcover – October 27, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"As Claire Tomalin demonstrates in her vivid and moving new biography, Dickens’s own life was rich in the attributes we call “Dickensian” — shameless melodrama, gargantuan appetites, reversals of fortune... To encompass this frenzy, Tomalin keeps the story racing. She brings Dickens to life in all his maddening contradictions... Dickens walks off the page, and the pace never flags. Tomalin accomplishes this resurrection in a mere 417 pages of text, supplemented by dozens of illustrations, several maps of Dickens’s London and a helpful dramatis personae... if you plan to read only one biography of the most popular Victorian writer, it should be this one."

"Enormously ambitious... admirable... warmly sympathetic and often eloquent."


“Clear-eyed, sympathetic and scholarly, she spreads the whole canvas, alive with incident and detail, with places and people. She writes of publishers, illustrators, collaborators and all Dickens’s intersecting circles of friends and family. It is wonderfully done.”

“[A] splendid history… Tomalin skillfully presents the chief trauma of Dickens' young life — being sent to work in a factory at age 12, after his father was imprisoned for debt — and suggests the ways it left a lasting mark, from his sympathy for the working class to his towering ambition and herculean work ethic.”

"[O]nward-driving, hypnotically vivid… the result of Claire Tomalin's unrivalled talent for telling a story and keeping a reader enthralled: long as the book is, I wanted more.”

About the Author

Claire Tomalin is the author of eight highly acclaimed biographies including Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. She has previously won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction, and the Whitbread Biography Award.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1 edition (October 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781594203091
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203091
  • ASIN: 1594203091
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #642,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Paul Gelman on November 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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!
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87 of 104 people found the following review helpful By toronto on December 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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).
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Donald E. Graham on November 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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)
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Charles R. Baker on January 18, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By J C E Hitchcock on April 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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