Charles Dickens: a man and his demons

Claire Tomalin's new biography is a valuable addition to the vast body of work about the Victorian author, creating a nuanced picture of a morally flawed idealist.

Charles Dickens
Claire Tomalin
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In his landmark 1939 essay on Charles Dickens, the critic Edmund Wilson noted that the Victorian great had received scant attention in his own country from biographers, scholars and critics. There were valuable commentaries by George Gissing and GK Chesterton, as well as George Bernard Shaw, but little else dotted the critical landscape.

How things have changed. Today, when a veritable mountain of Dickensiana towers over us, it is impossible to imagine the time Wilson was writing of. Now, the secondary literature on Dickens is vast. There are some 90 biographies and counting. Deluxe editions of his novels litter bookstore shelves. And the commentary is ceaseless: there have been books about Dickens and London; Dickens and crime; Dickens and women; Dickens and the police; Dickens and politics. You get the point.

And there is much more to come. Next year - February 7, 2012, to be exact - marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, and Dickensians everywhere are gearing up for 12 months of commemoration. Biographers are already doing their bit. Michael Slater, the dean of Dickens studies, struck first last year with a detailed biography that showcased his mastery of his subject's literary dealings and career as a professional author.

Claire Tomalin now enters the fray with her own valuable account of Dickens's life. Remarkably lean at 400 pages of reading text, her book strikes a nice balance between scholarly acumen and brisk readability, and the private man and public figure. She gives fine glosses on the novels, and soundly relates Dickens's creative genius to his lived experience. Then, Tomalin, a veteran literary journalist and author of lives of Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and others, is a biographer's biographer: in other words, a pro. Tomalin has few axes to grind: she likes Dickens, in spite of his profound flaws, about which she is unstinting.

Dickens was possessed by a kind of demonic energy, which he channelled into a frenzy of literary activity - there were the vast novels, of course, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend; but also essays, short stories, journalism, a voluminous correspondence; he also found the time (how?) to run several magazines and launch a newspaper - but it could also be turned against his family. Dickens had a cruel streak, and behaved ruthlessly to his wife, who bore him 10 children. Tomalin also shows off her speculative daring, especially with regards to Dickens's mistress, Ellen Ternan, about whom there has been much controversy over recent years.

Tomalin doesn't tinker much with the biographical form - this is, first and foremost, a birth to death account. Her book begins with a charged vignette, which sets the tone for what follows. Dickens has come to the inquest for a servant girl, who was charged with murdering her newborn child. Dickens persuasively argues for her innocence; she is spared the death penalty. He gets her a barrister, and sends her food. A powerful benefactor coming to the rescue; a fallen woman one step from the workhouse; a dead infant. It is a scenario right out of, well, a Dickens novel. For Tomalin, the episode highlights Dickens's essential decency, but it also points backwards to his own fraught youth as the son of a chronic debtor and his time working in a shoe-blacking factory.

All of Dickens's biographers have pinpointed this harrowing fall from middle-class respectability as a decisive moment in the writer's life. Dickens later recalled his time toiling away on the warehouse floor: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship ... the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position ... My whole nature was penetrated with grief and humiliation." He never forgot the time and wrote compassionately about the poor and downtrodden.

From then on, Dickens ploughed ahead. His searing experiences fuelled his rise. His formal schooling ended at 15 - but his education was nonetheless profound in its way. Turns as an office boy in a legal firm and then as a parliamentary reporter exposed him to worldly institutions (the law would be a favourite target for Dickensian satire).

The streets of London, always vividly evoked in his writing, were another tutor. "He was always looking, listening to the voices and reacting to the dramas, absurdities and tragedies of London life," Tomalin observes. Here, the persona of "Boz" took shape, the name under which he published his first book. The sense we get of Dickens's early years is of a writer's talents gathering in strength and force. Dickens was a whirlwind of activity. He hardly ever sat still (literally). He was a compulsive night-time walker; and he craved company: "He entirely lacked the romantic writer's need to be alone," Tomalin writes. As she notes, order and muddle were constant themes in his life, just as they were in his writing. He staged amateur theatricals - a lifelong love - travelled widely, and wrote, endlessly, tirelessly, ferociously: such was his energy that, at one point in late 1830s, he was simultaneously writing instalments of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and laying the groundwork for Nicholas Nickleby.

The Victorian public devoured his output, and warmed to his virtuosic shifts in tone, the myriad ways he could transform bumptious comedy into swooning melodrama. His readers' enthusiasm underwrote his hard-won financial security, and ability to provide for a growing brood of children. Dickens had a notion of family life and conviviality that practically defines our view of Victorian social life. Indeed, what would Christmas be without Dickens's imprint? Tomalin notes, astutely, his "insistence that good cheer, food and drink shared, gifts and even dancing are not frivolous but basic expressions of love and mutual support among all human beings".

But against this, Tomalin sets Dickens's own less than ideal family life. She does not mince words: Dickens behaved rather beastly towards his wife, Catherine Hogarth.

He was a highly sexed man who may or may not have resorted to prostitutes, at the same time as he tried to rescue girls from the profession. Tomalin is quite frank about his needs, but she also rouses herself to indignation about his treatment of Catherine, whom he left for a much younger woman, Ellen "Nelly" Ternan. When the final break came, "he was ready to be cruel to his defenceless wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defence. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking. He was determined to be in the right about everything. He must have known he was not, but he had lost his judgement. The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying."

Her words make for painful reading.

About Ternan, the subject of a previous Tomalin biography, The Invisible Woman, the author is on familiar terrain. Dickens fancied himself "a friendly uncle or quasi-godfather who took an interest in [Ternan's] education". Tomalin sees past the ruse, deducing that not only did Dickens consummate his relationship with Ternan, but that he fathered a (stillborn) child with her. Tomalin does not do so in the interests of prurient tittle-tattle; her brief is to provide the fullest version of Dickens's life as possible. In this, she succeeds brilliantly.

Whatever her misgivings, Tomalin has not written a prosecutor's brief - she is much too canny about Dickens's messy personal affairs to resort to mere finger-pointing. That would be too easy. Very much like Dickens himself, Tomalin has a generosity of vision that allows her to write both warmly and critically about her subject. If there is anything we can take away from our commemoration of the life of this greatest of English writers, it's that you can do both.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.