Review: 'Charles Dickens: A Life' by Claire Tomalin

The world is a veritable Dickens-fest at the moment, and there is zero point in fighting it.

Actually, I wouldn't, because I'm quite enjoying it, not least (smug) for the number of people around me who are happy to rhapsodise on the importance of Dickens whilst having never read a word of it: I know for a fact that there is a certain Head of Something Bookish in my city who only opened a free download of 'Great Expectations' just before Christmas, despite the fact that he'd already been planning all the bicentennial celebrations and related work in schools for the best part of a year, singing Dickens' praises all the way. Oh the shame.

Anyway, I bought Claire Tomalin's 'Charles Dickens: A Life', just before Christmas, out of sheer curiosity, desperate to read it and see what it was about. The thing is, there are a few people in my sphere who dislike this book immensely, regarding it as a libellous travesty, whilst there are those who think it is wonderful, and a deservedly honest account of a very complex man. All this, naturally, made me keen to read it myself and wade into the fray.

This new biography charts Dickens pre-cradle to post-grave, starting with his grandparents and ending with the death of his last child, so encompasses all of it: the childhood in the blacking factory, the determined rise to fame, the insanity of his workload, the leaving of his wife. It is surprising that he managed to find the time to write some of the best loved books in the English language, but manage it he did, and it is incredibly useful to envisage each book in the context of the wider circumstances of his life.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I felt it gave a great sense of the man, rather than just the idea or public face of him, and there are some wickedly telling anecdotes that shine a light through into the most obscure of moments, showing Dickens for what he really was.

And what he was, let's be honest, was not a very nice man. As you'll find if you read this, at times he was a ferocious tyrant, prone to violent mood swings, hard-heartedness and a love of getting involved with women who were not his long-suffering wife (but occasioanlly her sisters; ugh). He is a complex, driven character worthy of his own creation, which he himself admits to Dostoevsky in 1862:

'The person he [the writer] sees most of, most often, actually every day, is himself. When it comes to a question of why a man does something else, it's the author's own actions which make him understand, or fail to understand, the sources of human action. Dickens told me the same thing when I met him at the office of his magazine...in 1862. He told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks on causeless emnity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: 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.' 

I don't know about you, but reading this, having spent the previous 320 pages with him as this is rather near the end, I sat back and went 'yes, there he is.' Suddenly, it was clear what he'd been doing all those years, and what he was doing it for. It's the classic inner conflict of light and dark in a person, and he chose to let this war fight itself out on the page. How typical that the man with the greatest description of him would be himself - suddenly he's everywhere in his stories, way past 'David Copperfield' and the other most obvious examples.

Of course, his good/bad conflicts are not what we are here for, as if they only wrote biographies of nice people, my Gran would have been covered long ago, and that is sadly not the case. Yes, he is often a horrible, horrible man (at one point, Tomalin advises us to 'avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened', especially in the late 1850s), but he wrote some wonderful books and shook the society he lived in, documenting and immortalising it at the same time. This book leaves you in no doubt of his genius or his inimitable energy, ambition and drive.

And that is Tomalin's strength. She doesn't judge or justify his behaviour, and you feel her concern for all the people in this book, not least Catherine Hogarth or her children with Dickens, who get a pretty raw deal at times. I can imagine her shaking her head softly whilst writing certain bits, tutting a little at him, but never altering from the facts.

I would recommend this book to anyone, even those with only a passing interest in Dickens, as it is eminently readable, and illuminating in a way that is most impressive. The final paragraph of the book, in particular, is magnificent.

Title: Charles Dickens: A Life
Author: Claire Tomalin
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin
Year of Publication: 2011
Format: Hardback, 416 pages, plus another 1/2 inch of references, letter and notes, and I bought it.


  1. The hardback edition of Tomalin's biography is attractively produced, don't you think?-it's distinctive, pleasant-looking, well printed and I like the touch of the bound fabric bookmark attached to the book.
    I agree with you about the way Tomalin writes about Dickens-that she '..doesn't judge or justify his behaviour..'. Very readble biography-yes.

  2. It is - I love the colour illustrations that are used to decorate the inside of the cover, and bookmarks like that are always a nice touch.

    I agree, a very readable biography. Have you read Simon Callow's Dickens biography per chance? I've reviewed that also on here more recently.


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