59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2011
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!
82 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2011
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.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2011
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)
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2012
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.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2012
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2012
This book does an excellent job of giving the reader an picture of Dickens' character and how he lived his life. In the later years, it is a sad and unpleasant story, as he cast off his wife in a brutal manner and forced most of his family members (most of whom were dependent on him financially) to go along with him - even to the point of excluding his wife from their daughter's wedding. Another reviewer complained that there is too much detail about Dickens' movements on a weekly or even daily basis, but I thought this detail was quite revealing, as it removes any doubt that he spent a great deal of time with his young mistress, Nelly Ternan, including a sojourn in France during which she very likely suffered a miscarriage. And while being clear about his character flaws and selfishness in his family life, including the terrible behavior towards his wife and lack of engagement with most of his children, the book also brings out his great generosity towards his friends and his unselfishness in advancing social causes. All in all, a clear-headed view of a complicated man who also happened to be a literary genius. Of course, no one can explain the origin of genius, but I was still a little disappointed in Tomalin's analysis of the books, which often seemed brief and not especially illuminating. This is a small criticism, though, because we can all experience the genius of the books for ourselves, while it takes a book like this to get a picture of the man who created them, flaws and all. The book could have been edited more carefully - there are occasional sentences that you have to read twice to understand, like figuring out who the "he" in the last part refers to - but overall Tomalin writes clearly and the book drives forward and is easy to read. I have also read the Ackroyd biography, which was more colorful but also seemed more random and opinionated and less objective - more driven by Ackroyd's response to the books than trying to elucidate the facts about Dickens' life. Tomalin's book elucidates the facts very well.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2013
To begin I give credit to Ms Tomalin for a thorough unbiased analysis of Dickens that was a delight to read and a page turner for me. Unfortunately she did her job so well that I fell asleep after reading it and had a literal nightmare.
Dickens is inarguably brilliant, charming, intriguing and one of the greatest writers to ever draw a breath . I purchased this because he is a personal favorite and because I marvel at his endless supply of imaginative characters .The talent he displayed is still to this day AWE inspiring .The disappointment I encountered was that even though he engaged in many philanthropic ventures and criticized the government's brutal indifference to poverty of diligent working people, Dickens had an extremely dark side that caused an enormous amount of suffering to those he should have loved if he were genuine about his own value system . While he was capable at times of good deeds in behalf of the poor and marginalized in his society , his social conscience did not compare with his personal conscience in his treatment of his family or those who held differing views on many varying subjects.
Dickens kept his wife pregnant and criticized her for bearing so many children . He criticized and belittled her to the point that she was fearful of him and simply tried to appease him because she was a passive lady who wanted to please her mate , and because she deeply loved him . Her deep love was rewarded by Dickens with the proverbial "mean supper" . There is no record of her being anything but a caring, diligent , kind woman who treated others well and was respected by those who knew her . At about age 45 , Dickens became infatuated with an 18 year old actress and pursued the girl , a blonde named Nellie Ternan . Catherine found evidence of this , and instead of responding with remorse , he began a campaign to make his wife appear crazy , a poor mother , and a lazy person. Then he turns her out of the house and belittles her in the press and separates her from her children. As a matter of fact he chose to never see her again after he forced her into exile in humilation . Catherine never spoke a critical word of him the rest of her very sad life.
The odd thing is that once Catherine is thrown out , he keeps her sister Georgina around ( who does not seem very loyal to Catherine for no apparent reason) to care for the children while he focuses on two things , his brilliant career and status , and sneaking away with Nellie for "good times" . There is sadly no record of remorse for train wrecking the life of a decent wife who treated him well , or worse, no remorse for removing her from her own children , which would cause immense torment for most women . Though Catherine loved him and did no harm to him, he literally tried to convince himself that she was deserving of rejection and exile and that she was a bad woman, wife, and mother . The children , years later , give interviews and describe the events they witnessed and share that after their mother was humilated and rejected , Dicken's primary focus for his remaing years was his hidden girlfriend / mistress . Rather than being focused on the development of the many children he sired , they voiced that he did not seem terribly interested in them . The man who wrote stories about strong families showed a lack of care for his own . Though I love his written works and believe him brilliant , I see that he dealt his wife a cruel and bitter blow to pursue Nellie's sexual favors. Like many narcissists who achieve fame and wealth, he believed he deserved to have whatever made him feel good at any cost to those around him.The reader of this biography can see how human nature has not changed throughout the ages , and that the lot of womankind for centuries was nothing short of brutal.
If I could have the chance to meet two historical figures , I would choose Dickens and Lincoln. They lived at the same time and were both masters of the pen , fascinating , and enormously influential. However , Lincoln suffered for doing what he believed was right to create a just society , and was ruled by a powerful conscience and was willing to sacrifice the approval of his peers for the good of others. Dickens , equally brilliant , was willing to sacrifice the needs and welfare of those he should have loved in order to pursue ego gratification .
Tomalin depicts the various facets of Dickens skillfully as a creator and a human and balances the evidence fairly
with a narrative that is colorful . Few would question the greatness of Dicken's abilities as they analyze his work. Overall, as we look at his motives and intentions we usually ask ourselves "Was he a good guy ?" I suppose the answer lies with the value system of the one who poses the question .
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2013
Anyone interested in this book surely knows the lineaments of Dickens' life, and my emphasis here will be on Ms. Tomlin's telling of that tale. There are more complete bios of CD out there, but to Ms. Tomlin's great credit, she has chosen a path of judicious inclusion. Did I as a reader occasionally wish she had allowed the principals in these pages to tell their own stories in more of their own words (ie, quoting more often, a bit less narrative) ? Yes. At the same time, I respect her editorial choices: to keep before the reader the fury of CD's life. A man full of every sort of appetite, Dickens' incredible energies fill these pages, enough to make the reader close the book just to take a breath oneself. In doing so she has given the reader a better sense than more scholarly writers of the world as he knew it and as he lived it. In doing so, she creates for a reader a sense of terrible pity for Dickens' children, his long suffering wife, his long suffering mistress, his sister in law, indeed just about anyone whose life intertwined with his for any length of time. Often biographers will base their point of view on the unspoken premise: yes, but look he was Charles Dickens! Ms. Tomlin grants that, but she reaches into the grist of daily life to show us the frenzy--social, walking, working, reading, traveling, sex, food, etc--with which Charles Dickens greeted each day. As much as I have read of CD, Claire Tomlin is the first writer to actually ask the question: what did CD call home? At one time he had four simultaneous residences in greater London. A man of many moods. Doubtlessly Ms. Tomlin's work and her fine biography of Nellie Ternan gave her a sort of special insight into CD's life. When she comes to this part of his life, the reader can almost feel Ms. Tomlin batting against what will never be known, information that is forever lost, and that leaves her with only speculation, informed yes, but speculation nonetheless.
She discusses each of the major works, and many of the lesser, potboiling pieces most of us have never heard of. In doing so, she highlights his achievements: how in the midst of all that walking and moving and editing magazines and plunging headlong, night and day, into the life of London, did he find the time to leave us w/ such deathless characters? She makes clear what other biographers have only skirted: his stories were all from his past. Modern readers tend to lump the whole 19th century into a whole, but it was not that way to the people who lived through it. For a man who relied on the new, growing Victorian railway system, why did Dickenslavish his best writing on the old coaching days?
I have long admired Ms. Tomlin's work and eagerly awaited the paperback version of this book. It did not disappoint.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
In the run-up to Dickens' 200th birthday this year, there have been a number of biographies of the writer published. As a big fan of Dickens, I have read a number of them and most of them are quite good. I've yet to come across one I'd describe as the "best" or "definitive" as they all seem to have their strengths and weaknesses. Tomalin's biography is no different. In some ways it is very good but it also has its irritations.
Let's start with the strengths. This is one of the most readable of the recent biographies of Dickens. It is of manageable length, though it covers his entire life, and the prose pops along very energetically. Mainly this is because she controls the fount of detail. Unlike many biographers, she doesn't overwhelm us. She gives us enough to get a good outline of his story.
The weakness of this biography comes from her fairly obvious desire to take The Inimitable down a few pegs. Her analysis of every novel contains sentences that make me wonder whether she even likes his work. And, of course, there is her desire to beat up Dickens over his treatment of his wife and bring to the fore his mistress, Nelly Ternan. (In fact, she's already written an entire book on Ternan, The Invisible Woman.)
In and of itself, this is not a problem. I am not a fan of worshipful biographies because every human is flawed. For example, no one would argue, I think, that Dickens treated his wife horribly. It is the way Tomalin makes her points that is the problem. In particular, she is a master of saying "there is no proof" of something and then subtly taking that thing for granted as fact later in her book. She does this often but one instance should suffice here: on p. 327 she writes, "There is no proof that it was Nelly who took Dickens to France the summer of 1862, or that the reason for her being in France was the she was pregnant..." and then follows on p. 405 with, "They [Nelly and her husband, George Robinson] had two children, Geoffrey, born in 1879, the adored son who filled the place of the son she had lost, and a daughter, Gladys, in 1884." (My italics.)
Still, if you can take some of Tomalin's "facts" with a grain of salt, this is a pretty good biography. It takes you through Dickens' story briskly and informatively, which is not a quality of all the biographies out there.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2011
On vacation in England, we read several times of Claire Tomlin's new 2011 biography of Charles Dickens. Of how there were already many biographies, but this was the masterpiece. Then, while visiting lovely Rochester near which he lived as a child and near which he wrote and died, and which he featured in "Great Expectations" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", we grew a thirst to know more of this gifted story teller (I refer to Dickens, but it fits Tomalin!). Thought of buying the book in England, but $27 seemed a little high for a paperback. So, returned to the US, we quickly bought the hardcover from Amazon, for less!
Tomalin is a gifted biographer -- already well known for many others. She tells of Dickens in just-the-right detail, and offers clear analyses and judgments as she goes. It's a glorious work, and very highly recommended.