John Forster, Dickens’ best friend and appointed biographer, published the first volume of his Life in 1872, two years after Dickens’ death. Earl Russell wrote to him, ‘I shall have fresh grief when he dies in your volumes.’ Yesterday evening, approaching the end of Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens, A Life I got as far as the death and found myself in tears, just like the people who had known him when they read Forster’s great work of love and tribute. I often cite Middlemarch as my favourite book, I re-read some of Jane Austen’s novels each year, yet I still regard Dickens as our greatest novelist and am moved by the extinction of the spirit which produced books I love so much.
Next year will be the bi-centenary of Dickens' birth and we can expect further publishing flurries. The question is: how many biographies do we need? Hilary Mantel writes that ‘Claire Tomalin is the finest and most disinterested of biographers.’ For ‘disinterested’, read ‘cool’. According to Craig Brown she is ‘the most empathetic of biographers’, another judgement I disagree with. This biography is thoroughly researched and does justice to Dickens’ astonishing energy.
‘(he) packed so much into his life (from 1852-54) that it is hard to believe there is only one man writing novels, articles and letters, producing A Child’s History of England, editing, organizing his children’s education, advising Miss Coutts on good works, agitating on questions of political reform … travelling, acting, making speeches, raising money and working off his excess energy in his customary twelve-mile walks.’
Just to consider that by the time he was twenty five this scarcely educated man had published The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, bought a house and married gives some idea of the pace he was to live at. The wonder is not that he was burned out at fifty eight but that he lasted so long.
Dickens’ rise to fame was meteoric. As Tomalin says, ‘(he) had risen so high that he did not need to worry any longer about whether he was a gentleman or not.’ (Many people, even those who liked him, found him a little flash and vulgar.) In later life, when he embarked on his punishing reading tours, adoring crowds thronged to hear him, ‘cheering him, nourishing his spirit and protecting him from his detractors …’ It must have been something like being Bob Dylan in terms of celebrity, with the difference that Dickens wanted to influence people. Dickens was a man’s man who enjoyed all-male dinners and expeditions (very Victorian); most of his friends he kept for life. He was also very attractive to women and enjoyed flirting with them. Meanwhile his unfortunate wife Catherine, although she sometimes travelled with him, was usually at home with far more children than Dickens had ever wanted or knew how to support. His decision to separate from her and then to justify his actions by publicly vilifying her was cruel; his daughter Katey said later that her father was ‘a madman’ at this time. The change of life was due to his pursuit of a young, pretty and unavailable actress, Ellen Ternan, known as Nelly.
When dealing with Dickens’ besotted, disastrous obsession with Nelly, Tomalin is on home ground because of her 1990 biography of her as The Invisible Woman. Then and now she argues convincingly from her own research and that of other writers that at some point Nelly did agree to become Dickens’ mistress and had a son who died very young. During Dickens’ lifetime, although several people were in the know, not a breath of scandal became public: how different it would be today! The strain of living a double life must have been terrible for Dickens and surely hastened his death. But do you know what? I couldn’t care less whether or not he slept with Ellen Ternan. As George Orwell wrote apropos a book criticizing Dickens for his treatment of his wife, the facts ‘no more invalidate his work than the second-best bed invalidates Hamlet.’
Dickens himself, when making known his wishes for no grand funeral or any memorial after his death wrote, ‘I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works and to the remembrance of my friends upon their experience of me.’
my published works. It is the published works which for me get too little attention in this biography. It is a biography, not a work of literary criticism but the novels deserve more than the paragraphs devoted to them and their gradings: bad, good, perfect. For all its oddities, I prefer Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens, (which is more than twice the length of Tomalin’s book) because he didn’t just describe the life but imagined it. I don’t mean that he invented parts of Dickens’ life (apart from those strange sections where, for instance, he himself meets Dickens and speaks to him; I believe these inserts were removed from later editions) but that although his book is based on scholarship it is also impressionistic and seems to bring Dickens alive before us. That's empathy. I know that if I were to write a biography it would be like Tomalin’s: thoroughly professional and just a little dull. Ackroyd’s brilliant feats of imagination are quite beyond me, which is why I admire his book so much.
Verdict: disappointing but bound to win a prize.
My recommended reading:
Charles Dickens by George Orwell. An essay published in Inside the Whale, 1940. The best thing about Dickens I have ever read.
Dickens, Peter Ackroyd 1990