Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin. The Penguin Press, October 2011. 576 pp. $36.00. ISBN: 978-1-59420-309-1.

Why does Charles Dickens elicit our warmest sympathies? Is it the compassion radiating from his Christmas novels? Our conviction that this hierophant of social consciousness, who, as Claire Tomalin writes in her new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, “rendered nineteenth-century England crackling, full of truth and life, with his laughter, horror and indignation—and sentimentality,” deserves our empathy in kind? Like Robert Gottlieb, we find his life stories “endlessly recountable,” so enthralling that some aficionados, like Jill Lepore, even flock to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Dickens Universe, an annual one-week intensive summer camp. But George Orwell, writing in 1940, suspected that we elide Dickens’s character with the “implied” benevolence of his literary persona.

Orwell was right. To date, biographies of Dickens by his dearest friend and literary executor John Forster, historian Peter Ackroyd, and eminent Victorianist and Dickensian editor Michael Slater, have brought into relief his hardscrabble childhood, critical reception of his fiction, and journalistic forays respectively. Their touch, though, is ever reverential, chary of judging this ebullient, prolific, and beloved caricaturist of Victorian lives and foibles. So much so that despite their significant illumination of his novelistic imaginary, Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Slater’s biography in The Atlantic last spring, took the awl to their elision of Dickens’s art and life:

What is necessary is a portrait that supplies for us…some real villainy and cruelty to set against the angelic and the innocent…yet we remain in much the same position as those naïve Victorian readers who were so upset when Forster told them that [Dickens] had drawn his dramatis personae from wretched life itself…the next biography should take this stark chiaroscuro as its starting point.

Claire Tomalin enters the fray with considerable heft as a cultural historian, notably as Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature, and as a biographer of Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hardy. Her able wresting of archival material, trenchant analyses of epistolary and novelistic form, and mannered, incisive prose, have won her critical ardor by way of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, and several Whitbread Prizes. The first to unveil the strong likelihood of a sexual relationship between Dickens and the impoverished thespian Ellen Ternan, she brings her wealth of skill to Charles Dickens: A Life, a passionately researched, brilliantly executed alembic.

Initially, the book waxes hagiographic. The paratexts, including a detailed dramatis personae and a gallery of exquisitely limned maps identifying Dickens’s homes and haunts, determinedly approach the chimerical world of the Hundred Acre Wood, Wonderland, or a similar Perraultian setting. The opening anecdote evokes Dickens’s beneficence—his fervent juridical advocacy for the acquittal of Eliza Burgess, accused of infanticide. The breadth of his compassion for orphans, child laborers, working mothers, and paupers alike resonates throughout the book, which chronicles his establishment of the Home for Homeless Women, a halfway house offering former prostitutes respite, clean clothing, rudimentary education, community, and encouragement to reframe their lives through marriage or emigration. Witness the gracious and demotic Dickens to his charges: “I am going to offer you…all these blessings…and do not think that I write to you as if I felt myself very much above you. God forbid! I mean nothing but kindness to you, and I write as if you were my sister.” Tomalin suffuses her narrative with warmth toward such charitable enterprises, patience and sensitivity to Dickens’s financial struggles, his zealous but enervating dedication to journalism, first as a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle, an experience later attributed to David Copperfield, then as editor of the serial publications Household Words, Bentley’s Miscellany, and All the Year Round, and shock at publishers’ attempts to rob him of copyrights and fair royalty schedules.

Yet she tempers her affective grace with acerbic, well-reasoned appraisals of both his classics and his less canonical novels. The concertinaed analyses of plot and character, unsparing of narrative infelicities or critical acrimony against, say, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and American Notes, are informative and balanced, maintaining enough distance not to devolve into personal antipathy. Her assessments of the balance between characters “comic” and “most splendidly disgusting” in Dombey and Son and of the narrative craft of Bleak House are especially lively.

The biography’s most coruscating undertone is its marked feminism, critical of the conceit of the wan female—“small, pretty, timid, fluttering, and often suffering at the hands of […] official protectors, like Little Nell and Florence Dombey”—that wends through his novels, and of his execrable behavior toward his wife, Catherine, whom Tomalin situates “among the blank and blushing innocents.” She cautions readers to avert their eyes when he and all but one of the children—the same children he described to Forster as “objects” he did not wish to see—leave Catherine for Ellen: “the darkest part of his character was summoned up. He was ready to be cruel to his defenseless wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes.” Dickens’s first female biographer, she shores up descriptions of his priggish behavior with quotations from his family’s letters, Catherine’s a tempered account of “how hardly [she] ha[d] been used,” and his own comments about the dissolving marriage, published in a newspaper. Where Elizabeth Barrett Browning cast aspersions on him for his behavior (“what a crime, for a man to use his genius as a cudgel against his near kin”), Tomalin calls him an “unreformed Scrooge” when the epithet suits.

She closes with a Rabelaisian enumeration that lays bare his contradictions: “he left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version…The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker…The angry son, the good friend, the bad husband, the quarreler, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father…Too mixed to be a gentleman—but wonderful.” Tomalin’s magisterial work vaunts and vilifies him, holding both sensibilities in a carefully crafted equipoise, a rejoinder to Hitchens’s jeremiad, and, at long last, to Katey Dickens’s charge to “make the public understand that [her] father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch.”

A long-form version of this piece was published in the November 2011 issue of Open Letters Monthly here. It was linked in the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, Critical Mass, in the weekly roundup of November 7, 2011, here, too.

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