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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.