Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy (belated) birthday, Charles Dickens, you put this blogger to shame

I realise that I must be possessed of the procrastination gene. The reason for this is that during the international Charles Dickens is 200-fest which took place in February, I was actually reading (courtesy of a kind gift bearer) Claire Tomalin’s door stop biography Charles Dickens – a life. Yes, reader, I was so near to actually blogging on a topical subject that others were thinking of *at the same time*. However, the glare of the popular was all too much, and somehow it is now, in late March that I am finally cogitating over what I really thought of it.

When it comes to Charles Dickens, it is fair to say that I have history. That history is that I love his work, for all of its sentimentality, I absolutely love it. Also, I have always got the impression that, for all of the laudable charity work and modernity of the man, he was in many respects cruel and difficult. Tomalin’s book has not disabused me of either of these views, and so it has not revolutionised what I think about Dickens. As usual she is a cracking biographer, who sets the scene before her reader and does not make too many judgements.

There were probably 2 major revelations, 1 of which puts me to shame and the other of which is just a point of interest, for your delectation.

First, Tomalin really brings out and hammers home how astonishingly prolific Dickens was. Not for him, putting off a measly blog entry for 2 months. He could write 2 classics at once and it is not as though there were major sacrifices of quality or depth. No, he was just a remarkably fast and industrious worker. I am shamed, but also inspired.

Secondly, so much ink has been spilt on Dickens’ relationship with women, whether they be wives or daughters or mistresses or whores. What Tomalin does, which for me was new, was to look at his relationships with men.  One gets the impression that although he liked a good time, and his male friends had to be able to drink and carouse with the best of them – he did not like to be outshone. I found myself thinking that this attitude was somehow pre-figured by his troubled relationship with his charming, hopeless, feckless father. Dickens’ best friend, John Forster, was in some respects the most significant personal relationship of his life. It was certainly the longest lived and the least chequered. It suggests a trust and candour on Dickens’ part that I did not find so much evidence of in his other relationships.

Tomalin’s account of the breakdown of Dickens’ marriage is engaging. I have used the word “breakdown” but that is somehow wrong. The reality, for those who have not read about it, is that Dickens was married young to an apparently sweet although not enormously interesting young woman. After 22 years of married life, and upteen children, Dickens simply left her and lived in barely concealed sin with a young actress called Nellie Ternan. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: the story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens, next stop in the biography train, methinks.


  1. The Invisible Woman is well worth the read but I'd still go for a Wilkie Collins over a Dickens any day.
    Tomalin also wrote an excellent biography of Jane Austen - oh if I only had an ounce of Tomalin's productivity!

    1. Agree on Wilkie Collins!

      I am not a Dickens fan, but I HAVE always wondered what people see in him, and maybe I'll read this to find out? Do you think it would change my mind?

    2. Hi - it is a really top biography, but I am not sure that it would change anyone's views on Dickens' actual work - I like Wilkie Collins too and it is good to see him getting attention in the wake of the Dickens celebration

  2. I watched a documentry on Dickin's marriage a few week ago which was very interesting but of course it all ended sadly. I hadnt known anything about his relationships with his men in particular his father, I think the documentry made out that he was upset with his mother for making him work in the blacking facotry.

    Im mumbling, very interesting review!

  3. thanks for your visits and comments both...

    Tonia - I was thinking about visiting Jane Austen's house this very weekend, so your comments is very apt. Maybe I should give that one a go.

    Jessica - yes I got the impression from the Tomalin book that the blacking factory scarred hard and scarred deep.

    Thanks for your comments, and happy tuesdays


  4. Sadly, most poets, writers artists are cruel and difficult. On the other hand. They are also the most sensitive, generous, loving, giving people.

  5. I was also reading this one during the 200th anniversary celebration (and also only posted about it early this week). Completely agree with you on Tomalin bringing home just how energetic Dickens was. It's actually the strongest lingering feeling when I think about the book now.

  6. Fantastic review, Hannah. I will be reading this one.

  7. I've heard that this book is good. His life sounds so interesting. I'd like to think that I'll get to reading a Dickens this year, but it probably won't happen. I have been watching the new Great Expectations which has been playing on tv here in Australia recently.

  8. I loved Great Expectations but have not read any other Dickens. I think I shall now!

  9. thanks for your further visits and comments...

    FA&OF - i am not so sure... i often think that presentation is dangerously close to stereotyping. I guess the truth includes the fact that stories about happy well balanced people (artists or no) don't make great biographies.

    Alex - I'm glad that I am not the only one

    Aguja - you are, as always, very welcome!

    Louise - I hope that you enjoy dipping into Dickens. I love Great Expectations and also think that Bleak House is a good book to start on

    bespokehome - see above - if you liked GT Expectations, I would say have a go at Bleak House.

    OK - thanks all for visiting my blog and have happy sunny thursdays,