Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

• Hardcover: 527 pages

• Publisher: Penguin, 2011

• ISBN: 1594203091

• Genre: Literary Biography

• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys biographies and Victorian Literature; anyone who doesn’t mind reading about a well-respected author’s dirty laundry; anyone who doesn’t like Charles Dickens and wants to add fuel to their fire.

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

In his time, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the most popular author not only in his native England, but also in America: In fact, in just two days, his American Notes sold 50,000 copies in New York alone. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens captures the inner workings of a fiercely private workaholic, a man whose mistreatment of family and friends seems at painful odds with his philanthropic activities and the deep human warmth communicated in his novels. Tomalin’s mastery of the materials and writing skills enable her to untangle and weave together events in Dickens’ professional career and private life that other chroniclers have missed. By any standard, a major biography of a major author by an award-winning biographer.

Why This Is Not a Review:

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, I don’t like biographical writing. So, why did I pick this one up? Because I have been loving my reading of Bleak House and have been noticing that Dickens had some strong feelings about philanthropy, and I wanted to know where these stemmed from, and how they appeared in his own life. When I read Tomalin’s biography on Dickens, I pretty much got this answer. However, I also got a lot more of his personal life than I wanted. Too much that I didn’t want to know.

So, it turns out Dickens was a big jerk and sort of a weirdo in his personal life. He wasn’t a good husband, and not a very good father, and his friendships equated to emotional rollercoasters that would make a teenage girl’s life seem positively stoic. Yet, he did some amazing things in his professional life. Unfortunately, Tomalin’s biography spent about equal time on both parts of his life, and I reluctantly read about all of his personal issues. While Tomalin’s book was very well-written, and did everything a biography is supposed to do, I couldn’t bear to read most of it. In fact, I wanted to stop reading after I reached the point when he stopped writing his novels and went on book tours. At this point in his life, it was just DRAMA. And I don’t want the drama, I’m only interested in his writing life.

So, I’m not writing a book review because I don’t think that I can be objective and do justice to Tomalin’s work. It wouldn’t be right. So, instead, I will provide a reflection on what I learned about Dickens’ writing life, as that is solely what I read this book for. This reflection will be in two parts, as it is rather long (I have struggled with writing this for DAYS, and this reflection was finally composed over a period of HOURS on Saturday), with the first half appearing today, and the second half appearing tomorrow.

One last personal reflection: after struggling with my reading of Tomalin’s biography on Dickens, I have decided that I will not read another biography on any author whom I admire. I just don’t want to know about their personal life! I don’t need to! Instead, I will read literary criticism on works and authors, and if I need a little personal history, I will simply reference a biography, and not read it in its entirety. Tomalin also wrote a biography on Jane Austen, and I’m not sure that I could read that either. Yet, give me a biography on Motley Crue or Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and I could handle that! I just don’t want to read about authors. I guess I’m not the only one though, as Lev Grossman discussed this very issue earlier this month in Time, and even referenced Dickens and Tomalin’s biography on Dickens. As Grossman put it, with some authors such as Dickens, Vonnegut, Ellison, and Roald Dahl, “the less said the better.”


“I Was a Teenage Samuel Beckett: Or My Literary Biography Problem” by Lev Grossman for Time

Lev Grossman’s Review of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Classic Authors: They’re Just Like Us! (if we’re best-selling novelists, that is)

or What I Learned about Charles Dickens, the Novelist

from My Reading of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

Part One:

Charles Dickens essentially invented the model of the modern day New York Times best-seller novelist. He created and fit the mold in several ways:

1. He was extremely popular and well-known in his time.

2. He knew the power of public readings.

3. He went on book tours.

4. He tried to change the world around him.

5. He was one of the first Young Adult/Children’s authors.

6. He actively pursued and advocated copyright law.

7. He wrote serials.

8. He wrote for the masses.

9. He was sensitive to criticism.

10. His novels were adapted for the stage shortly after publication.

1. Charles Dickens: Literary Rock Star

Neil Gaiman on The Simpsons episode "The Book Job"

Neil Gaiman on The Simpsons; ep. "The Book Job"

Dickens was the original rock star novelist– if The Simpsons had been around in Victorian times, he would have appeared in an episode. On Twitter, he would have the most followers.

The public bought his books in droves, authors like Poe, Thackeray, and Dostoevsky clamored to meet him, and, at one time, he was even urged to run for Parliament. From the wealthy (even the Queen) to the very poor, on all sides of the Atlantic, everyone read his writing and loved his characters. “[T]hey were passed from hand to hand, and butchers boys were seen reading them in the streets. Judges and politicians, the middle classes and the rich, bought them, read them and applauded[…]. The names of his characters became common currency ,” (68). It seems he was universally loved as a novelist.

2. Appearing Tonight: Charles Dickens

Like many modern-day authors, Dickens knew the power of public readings. His close literary friends pooh-poohed the idea, considering it akin to a circus performance, but Dickens thought “in these days of lecturings and readings, a great deal of money might possibly be made […] by one’s having Readings of one’s own books. It would be an odd thing. I think it would take immensely,” (184).

It did take immensely, and Dickens greatly enjoyed acting out his own characters, and people filled the house to listen to their favorite author read his own words. “People knew that this was the event that must be caught now or never, and they were ready to come for miles and through all weather to hear the great man,” (366).

In this way, I was reminded of the giddy pleasure I had in listening to Neil Gaiman read from his novel American Gods during its 10-year anniversary tour last year. His tour would quickly sell out in each city in which it was announced, and the audience that I was a part of in Los Angeles was comprised of all types, including Wil Wheaton, who was just as giddy as the rest of us. I drove about a hundred miles to see Gaiman, and it was entirely worth it, as I’m sure it was for Dickens’ audience.

If you read it, they will come, and Dickens knew this before it was commonplace.

Dickens on a Reading Tour3. Next Stop: America

Dickens also actively promoted his books on book tours. He came to America in 1842, bouncing around from Boston to New York, Washington, Baltimore, the South, St. Louis, Ohio, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Canada. During his tour, he took part in dinners, parties, and balls held in his honor, befriended Washington Irving, Emerson, and Longfellow among others, and pursued international copyright laws. America loved him and he was truly given the “rock star treatment” with fans clamoring for autographs outside of his hotels.

In his later years, Dickens wrote less and toured more with many public readings. Dickens returned to America in 1867, where he read like a mad man for the public, giving numerous public readings in a short amount of time. When he returned to England, he began his Farewell tour, giving a series of readings in England, Scotland, and Ireland, until he completely wore himself out and suffered a stroke. Yet, he continued with his tour, knowing the power of being with the people, and his readers loved him for these book tours.

4. Before George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, There Was Dickens

Actually, Dickens would have probably not approved of Clooney or Jolie’s philanthropic ventures, as I will discuss in my Tuesday Dickens post. Dickens was more like Michael Moore, interested in his own country’s social problems.

Dickens’ novels shed light upon many major issues in British society: child labor, prostitution, social inequities, legal malaise, poverty, ecology, etc.. He felt it his duty to show what life was really like in his world, and while he felt that most of society would rather not know, he put it in his novels anyway. “There is a kind of delicacy which is not at all shocked by the existence of such things, but is excessively shocked to know of them,” Dickens said on the subject, (Tomalin, 147). Not only did he write about these issues, he also sought to make an active change with his philanthropic ventures, organizing charities for orphans, the poor, and even instituting a “Home” for prostitutes with the hope of educating them and preparing them for a life of respectable housekeeping and marriage.

David Copperfield

Totally Swoonworthy!

5. OMG! My fave YA book boyfriend isn’t Edward Cullen, it’s David Copperfield!

Charles Dickens was one of the first Young Adult/Children’s authors, giving voice to what it means to grow up through the first person narration of David Copperfield. Any emo kid could relate to Copperfield’s story, as Tomalin describes the first 14 chapters as showing “the pain of a child being separated from his mother, unkindly used by his stepfather, humiliated and punished without knowing why, sent to a boarding school run on a harsh and unjust system, helpless in the hands of people who don’t like him,” (217).

What is surprising, is that no one had given voice to a young person before, except, of course, Charlotte Bronte. Tomalin goes on in discussing David Copperfield as a literary turning point: “This was his first book to be narrated in the first person. It was also only the second novel to give voice to a child who is taken seriously as a narrator. Two years before he started to write David Copperfield [1847], a great stir was caused by Jane Eyre, which opens with a child’s narrative of cruel usage by her guardians and at school. […] As far as is known, Dickens never read Jane Eyre […]. That two writers should have within a few years made the voice of an ill-used child central to a novel is remarkable coincidence,” (217-218).

Read Part Two of This Post Tomorrow!