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Having previously written biographies of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen, among others, to say nothing of a study of Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, Claire Tomalin was admirably qualified to produce a major life of the author which was published to mark the bicentenary of his birth in 1812. (Sadly, she has said in interviews that this is going to be 'her last large-scale book').
Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Charles Dickens was denied a formal education by his family's poverty - his impecunious father served time in a debtor's prison - and started work in a blacking factory at the age of twelve. Three years later he was employed as a junior clerk in a lawyer's office. His early experiences, and the hardships of others he saw around him, had a major influence on his thoughts and in time his writing, and his sympathy for the underdog never wavered. To demonstrate this, Tomalin begins the book with a Prologue in which she gives an account of his successful intervention as a juror in a trial of 1840 at which he argued passionately that a young servant girl was not guilty of murdering her newborn child, and thus saved her from a sentence in which the penalty in those days was generally the gallows.
It was typical of his determination to see justice done. Always a radical and more often than not a republican at heart, he welcomed the abdication of King Louis-Philippe in France and the declaration of a republic, though he despaired of the nation when Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew was later elected President and subsequently proclaimed himself Emperor. Although he was excited at the prospect of visiting America for the first time, it failed to live up to his expectations, and he wrote that he thought it 'utterly impossible for any Englishman to live here and be happy.'
By his twenties he was already a successful writer. His books were basically published as first drafts, with each chapter issued as soon it was finished, and quite often he was engaged in writing two titles at once. Public readings in Britain and America, where he went on tour twice, made him a wealthy man.
However the feeling, which Tomalin makes clear, is that he took on far too punishing a schedule. Hard work aged him prematurely, and undermined his health. In his last years he was a martyr to neuralgia and gout, and never really recovered from a railway accident in which he was injured and several others were killed, and a subsequent stroke. Towards the end, he 'rejected and defied his illness with a spirit that would not flinch or budge'. By the end he could barely walk unaided, and at some of his last readings he had to be helped on and off the stage. This determination to continue to the bitter end undoubtedly contributed to his death from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 58, leaving his last work unfinished.
We are also left clear from Tomalin's penetrating portrait that he was not the most agreeable man to know. To some he could be witty, charming and good company, but to others he could also be implacable and vindictive. For a man whose writings extolled the joys of family life, he was hardly a kindly husband to his wife Catherine and ten children. After the marriage deteriorated, he publicly separated from her, placed an announcement in The Times explaining why, treated her abominably, and set up house with a mistress, Ellen Ternan, who was nearly 30 years his junior. His biographer does not seek to make excuses for his obviously inexcusable behaviour, writing that 'the spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying'. She warns that the reader may wish to avert his or her eyes 'from a good deal of what happened during...1858', when one of his daughters later said there was sheer misery at home and he was behaving like a madman. The friends who sided with him on the matter remained friends, unlike those who had the decency to speak up for the wronged Catherine Dickens. Yet at the same time he was working hard to raise money for the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. It was a shame that he forgot the old maxim, 'charity begins at home'.
His children were treated little better. He seemed keen enough to send his boys away from home at an early age, and towards the end of his life he lost patience with the spendthrift son Sydney, writing that he feared the young man was 'much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish he were honestly dead'. As Tomalin observes, once he had drawn a line, he was pitiless.
This is a rich, vivid biography of the man, and to some extent the age in which he lived and ultimately became a part. She portrays without flinching the virtues and failings of a man who could be generous and compassionate yet deeply unpleasant. This is not necessarily a book for the reader who wants an analysis of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and the rest, yet she gives crisp concise assessments of the worth of each one, as well as a thoroughly-researched account of how each came to be written. A very full read, it is admirably supplemented by three sections of black and white plates, showing him on his odyssey from fresh-faced long-haired youth to grizzled, premature old age. The hardback edition I am reviewing has colour endpapers with their contemporary illustrations of his most famous characters, a picture of Dickens with a superimposed signature on the front board, and a rather striking pale green and gilt half-size wraparound jacket, plus an integral bookmark - something I have not seen in a hardback, apart from a diary, for a long time.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted elsewhere]