BOOK REVIEW: ‘Charles Dickens: A Life’

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CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE
By Claire Tomalin
Penguin, $36, 576 pages

In 1849, London’s Fraser’s Magazine had high praise for the author of the recently published “David Copperfield.” “There is not a fireside in the Kingdom,” proclaimed Fraser’s, “where the cunning fellow has not contrived to secure a corner for himself as one of the dearest, and by this time one of the oldest friends of the family.”

“Most men,” continued the publication, “would as soon think of dissecting a first cousin as of criticizing Charles Dickens.”

But of course this “cunning fellow,” the beloved Boz, was not a saint. And in 1872 one of his oldest friends, John Forster, tried to set the record straight. Forster’s two-volume “The Life of Charles Dickens,” which first appeared just two years after the author’s death, offered a surprisingly candid portrait of an unusually complicated man. The great Dickens, Forster confirmed, was in fact generous and often kind. He did magic tricks and danced the polka. When Dickens left a social gathering, one sensed a “blank” nearly “impossible to fill up.”

But Dickens was not Mr. Pickwick. He was willful, even domineering, and he ran his home like a military compound. He could be morose as well as merry, and he grew gloomier and more restless as the years went by. Dickens was haunted, Forster implied, by the ordeals of his childhood years.

For as “The Life of Dickens” disclosed, the author’s father had a special talent for gathering debt. And after years of cadging loans and dodging creditors, John Dickens found himself in a jail for debtors, the Marshalsea. Charles, meanwhile, was pulled from school and sent to a factory where he sat all day gluing labels on jars of boot blacking. In many ways, Charles Dickens‘ boyhood was every bit as frightful as David Copperfield’s.

All of this was a revelation, for Dickens never spoke, not even privately, of his early brush with poverty. Most readers, surely, admired his ambition and industry. But some reviewers, and probably most readers, were disappointed too, for it was hard to embrace the often exasperating figure that Forster portrayed. And readers loved Dickens‘ books so much that they wanted to love Dickens, too. In fact, Dickens‘ eldest daughter once complained that far too many people really believed that her father was a “joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch.”

Claire Tomalin, it’s clear, admires Dickens‘ work. But, like Forster, she would prefer to see him in a more honest way. In 1990, Ms. Tomalin published “Invisible Woman,” a rather controversial biography of Ellen Ternan, the young actress with whom Dickens lived and traveled for more than a decade. Dickens met Ternan in 1857, when he was already very famous and very married to Catherine Hogarth, the mother of his 10 children.

Forster made no direct mention of Ternan, and later biographers also chose to underplay her role in Dickens‘ life. After so many years, they argued, it was impossible to see this relationship with any clarity, particularly since the relevant correspondence apparently had disappeared. Sure, they admitted, Dickens took an active interest in Ellen and her family. But this only confirmed the largeness of his generosity. And even if Dickens did love “Nelly,” it was pretty clear she kept him at bay. Dickens, like it or not, was confined to a purely avuncular role.

Ms. Tomalin, however, dug deeper. Ellen, she declared, was Dickens‘ lover and she bore him a child who died in infancy. It’s an argument she underscores in “Charles Dickens: A Life,” a new biography that helps mark the bicentenary of the author’s birth. Ms. Tomalin again effectively shows how Dickens‘ “obsessive” love for Ellen shaped his final years. It helped fuel his creativity, but also “summoned up” the “darkest part of his character.” Because of the affair, Dickens was both revitalized and ruined.

Of course, Ms. Tomalin is not a literary Kitty Kelly hoping to cash in by exposing the private affairs of a widely admired figure. Ms. Tomalin, who has also written excellent studies of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, brings both sympathy and acuity to her extensive discussion of Dickens‘ crowded life and career. Inevitably, then, she covers well-worn ground. Here again is the full story of Dickens‘ unsettled childhood, his start as a parliamentary reporter and his sudden celebrity as the youthful author of “The Pickwick Papers.”

Here, too, are all the familiar and often colorful supporting characters in the great Dickens drama, including his loquacious father, his adoring sister-in-law and the several sons who wilted in the shadow of their father’s fame. And here is Forster himself, who similarly pushed his way through literary London and who served as Dickens‘ associate and confidant for more than three decades.

But because she is a gifted writer, Ms. Tomalin does manage to freshen up the Dickens story, in part by finding new details and angles, and casting a bit more light not only on Nelly Ternan, but on the beleaguered woman she replaced, Catherine Dickens, a rather shadowy figure in previous biographies. The result is a smart and highly readable book that offers a particularly well-rounded portrait of Britain’s most popular writer after Shakespeare. This is Dickens as he really was - and not as his most ardent admirers would have wished him to be.

• Brian Murray teaches at Loyola University Maryland and is the author of “The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Dickens” (Continuum).

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