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Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire TomalinClassic 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 Two:

As I discussed yesterday, I am not writing a review on Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life for various reasons. If you want to know why, read yesterday’s post. Instead, I am reflecting here on what I learned about Charles Dickens the novelist from Tomalin’s book. This is part two of the post.

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.

Napster and Shawn Fanning6. Pirates of the Atlantic: The Curse of the Continents

Before Lars Ulrich and Metallica’s fight with Napster, before torrent sites, and before SOPA, there was Charles Dickens, blazing the trail of copyright laws. Just as his novels were incredibly popular in his native England, they were HUGE in America, and Dickens was barely receiving any compensation for them! In 1842, Dickens sailed to America, and one of his major purposes was to bring about international copyright laws. “Across the Atlantic there was no legislation of any kind covering the rights of foreign authors, and publishers simply took what they wanted and did what they liked with it,” (104).

Upon arrival in America, Dickens was hosted at many gatherings where he would introduce his proposal that something had to be done about copyright in America. His requests were, at first “politely ignored,” then, American newspapers took the view that “he should be pleased with his popularity and grateful for it too, and that it was mercenary to fuss about pirated copies,” (131). As his tour went on, and he continued in his pleas for international authors’ rights, the press remained hostile. Surprisingly, American authors didn’t really take up his cause either. “He complained that he got little encouragement from American writers, although he did persuade twenty-five of them, headed by Washington Irving, to sign a petition for him to take to Congress,” (132).

Eventually, Dickens began to get his rights and compensation as an author on the other continent, as “Tauchnitz, the Leipzig publisher who had been publishing English books on the Continent, had begun to deal fairly and was offering money for Dickens’ work: his edition of the Carol was sanctioned by the author,”(150). However, America did not come around in Dickens’ lifetime, as the International Copyright Act of 1891 was enacted 21 years after Dickens’ death.

7. Waiting on Wednesday: What Bloggers Would Have Been Eagerly Anticipating Every Month

As mentioned previously, Dickens was one of the original YA authors, and like many YA authors, he preferred the series format for his novels. Beginning with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens wrote his novels in serial form, appearing in monthly installments, and would often write two at a time, such as Oliver Twist‘s overlapping publication with Pickwick.

The two serial stories would be running simultaneously for ten months, and Dickens would have to work like a juggler to keep both spinning. He said later that he was warned against serial publications–‘My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes’- but whoever these friends were he triumphantly proved them wrong[.] (74)

As Tomalin points out, Dickens accomplished a major and unprecedented feat with the simultaneous publication of his works. Writers of serial novels (and also televisions serials like Lost) are unique in that they have to have much of everything already planned in their head. While Pickwick began as “a series of loosely rambling episodes,” Dickens began to introduce plot and had to take much more care in the set-up:

There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. (74)

One great advantage of series-writing, as I’m sure any modern-day author and television writer can attest, is the ability to hook an audience. Dickens utilized cliff-hangers at the end of his chapters to leave his audience begging for more. He also paid close attention to his audience, and introduced certain types of characters to increase the novel’s popularity. For example, he introduced Sam Weller, Pickwick’s cockney servant, in June 1836, and “sales of the monthly numbers in their pale green wrappers rose steadily and soon spectacularly, and the critics vied with one another to praise it. The appearance of a fresh number of Pickwick soon became news, an event, something much more than literature,” (67).

Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider


8. Dickens: A Man for the Common Man

Dickens wrote for everyone. He was not, in the least, elitist when it came to his writing. If he were a modern-day actor, he would be Nicholas Cage, pumping out action flick after action flick. Well, if Nicholas Cage made movies that spoke to one’s soul.

He wrote for and about the common man, and “the ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it,” (68). He knew his audience and delivered what the masses wanted. They found truth and cameraderie in his writings, much as the groundlings did with Shakespeare.

Upon publication of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens found his first major success with the masses:

It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them. Dickens knew he had triumphed, and this sense of a personal link between himself and his public became the most essential element in his development as a writer.

One remarkable effort that Dickens made to connect with his public was his publication demands for A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most well-known and beloved Dickens tale, annually read at the holidays by people around the world. This was precisely Dickens’ goal when he wrote it, and he made sure that the public would easily get its hands upon a beautiful copy:

Dickens asked Chapman & Hall to publish his little book on commission, as a separate venture, and he insisted on fine, coloured binding and endpapers, and gold letterings on the front and spine; and that it should cost only a few shillings. (149)

The public did indeed buy up his beautiful little Christmas tale, but unfortunately he made very little money from the sales, as “almost all of the profits were absorbed in the expenses of binding, special paper, coloured plates and advertising,” (150). It still was very noble indeed, and A Christmas Carol is still proving to be very popular with the masses.

9. Pay No Mind to the Reviews

Dickens was very popular, and he loved his popularity. But, not everyone is going to love one’s work, even Dickens’ work, and when Dickens received bad reviews, he felt it deeply.

Bleak House received bad reviews both from critics and from his closest friend John Forster:

[W]here it was noticed, although many critics allowed that Dickens was popular and possessed of genius, they also expressed disappointment that he had abandoned humour for the grotesque and contemptible, and that it was ill-constructed. (245)

Even his friend Forster said that Bleak House was “too real to be pleasant,” and that “while Dickens pretended to be indifferent to criticism, he was hurt by it, and ‘believed himself to be entitled to higher tribute than he was always in the habit of receiving,'” (245).

In 1857, Dickens broke his rule about not reading his negative reviews, and was again hurt by an attack on Little Dorritt:

[I]n Blackwoods [a magazine] was an unfavourable view of Dorritt which upset him, appearing just before he began on the last section of the book. He was accused of bad construction, of making an unsuccessful attempt to write on social questions, and of giving ‘twaddle’ to William Dorritt to speak.[…][Dickens] told Forster he was ‘sufficiently put out by it to be angry with myself being such a fool.’ (281).

Not much has changed. There will always be bad reviews, and, as in the case of Bleak House, there will always be bad reviews when you diverge from the simple and easy, and try something different than what is already popular.

10. The Book Was Better!

Before the BBC got a hold of Dickens’ tales, players were acting out scripts of his novels only months after publication. Beginning with Nicholas Nickleby, dramatizations of his works were played in theatres all over England. Dickens loved the theatre, but according to Tomalin, his own dramatized works “caused him some groans” (99). Sometimes Dickens got into the spirit himself, and put on his own theatricals (though not of his own stories). While I’m sure the audience enjoyed the dramatizations of Dickens’ work, as many of his novels are written perfectly for theatrics, I’m sure there was an audience member or two who walked out the theatre muttering, “Meh. The book was better.”

If you’re interested in more about Dickens, check out Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life and/or read my post on Thursday where I will consider Dickens’ views on philanthropy.


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!