Dickens lived until he was 58 and had a busy life, so my congratulations to Claire Tomalin for managing to put it all into 400 pages. Some of the reviews I’ve read criticized how she didn’t include more insight into his era, into his relationship with his sons, his work methods, etc. But I found it the perfect book for someone like me, who was curious about Dickens, but didn’t want to read Peter Ackroyd’s 600-page tome or Michael Slater‘s more academic biography.
It felt like a solid overview of his life, well researched and thoughtful. She starts with his problematic childhood then moves on to his early career and seemingly infinite energy, his difficulties in coping with middle-age, the problems brought on by the affair with Nelly Ternan and his ultimate decline.
Tomalin doesn’t produce any new and amazing discovery, but she does have good insights into his books (I especially liked her analysis on Dickens’s flat female characters), his inspiration, and how his frantic way of working created both brilliant and weak stories. Dickens was always on the move, always busy with dozens of old and new projects. One month after finishing this book, it’s this sense of nervous energy that lingers.
She’s pretty hard on Dickens over some episodes, especially on way he treated his wife during the Nelly affair, but I must agree with her. Dickens might have been the hero of England’s poor, and extremely generous, but he seemed to preferred to do good works for strangers, rather than be affectionate to most of his family members, especially his sons. Considering these two sides of his character it’s fascinating to understand how Dickens created and managed his own myth.
After his death, Dickens’ daughter Katey wrote she wished someone would correct the general perception of her father as “a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch”. I think she would be proud of this biography. Claire Tomalin’s Dickens comes out as a troubled, self-centered, and often mean person, but also a genius of writing, acting and creating emotional responses in general.