I’ve been getting into Dickens the last couple of weeks, reading and rereading. I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities very much and am now some way through Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ last completed novel. The murky ancient river with its deathly secrets and the brittle manners and concerns of the arriviste bourgoisie are both compelling.
This enjoyment prompted me to want to read more about Dickens himself, so I gave Claire Tomalin’s biography a try as it seemed to be the best recommended. I certainly found it very vivid and readable, as it leads you quickly through the events of Dickens life giving vivid glimpses of his personality along the way.
In Tomalin’s portrayal, Dickens came across ultimately as a very ambivalent figure.
On the one hand, he was capable of wonderful kindness and generosity to those stricken by misfortune, a man of radical politics though scathing of politicians generally and genuinely indignant and concerned on behalf of the marginalised of society. I was interested to learn of Dickens’ radicalism. For some reason I had always imagined him as some kind of One-Nation Tory. I suspect that this is because he has become a figure that seems to embody an idea of ‘Victorianism’ in itself in the public consciousness, even because of his scathing portrayal of much of what was wrong with it.
On the other hand, there was a sense that he could be cold, autocratic and rejecting to those closest to him. Nn particular, there was the vile way Dickens treated his wife, not only rejecting her for his actress mistress but justifying himself by attacking her publicly,questioning her love for her children and even her grip on sanity.
There is also the curiously cold way he related to most of his children. It is hard for most British people in the 21st century to imagine what it would be like to have ten children, even though we are only two or three generations from it being the norm. Interestingly, it seems the situation was hard for Charles Dickens to get his head round too. He favoured his first three children, but apparently treated the later additions to his family with a kind of distanced bafflement as though he simply couldn’t extend his love and attention far enough for them all to have their share. It is disquieting to learn that the author of A Christmas Carol frequently left his own sons at boarding school over Christmas.
Tomalin’s biography brings across these ambivalencies very well. She also vividly conveys the sheer physical energy of the man, who combined a prodigious literary output with the need to undertake walks of many miles on a more or less daily basis. I found the clearly extrovert portrayal of Dickens who seemed to love to surround himself with people and to feed off the energy of an audience devouring his readings to be interesting. Writers are not always introverts, it seems.
What I would have liked to see more of in this biography is a slowing down of the narrative in places and time given to a discussion of questions such as Dickens’ own literary influences and inspirations “where did he get his ideas from…”. He was a genius, but he wasn’t created out of thin air. What did he read? How much did he gain from his interrupted education? How did he come by his views on religion and politics? (He wasn’t conventionally religious either.)
I also felt there was a lack of insight into some of the people who surrounded him most closely. Catherine Dickens seems to be dismissed by the biographer as a nonentity about whom there is nothing much to be said rather as Dickens himself did. His children also remain shadowy figures though we hear something of how they lived out their lives after Dickens’ death – rather forlornly for the most part. We also got intriguing glimpses of his friendships with writers such as Carlyle and Thackeray and I would have liked to know more about those, about how the greatest writers of the age influenced and reacted to each other. Of course, a biography cannot contain everything and this was an excellent introduction to the larger-than-life personage who bestrode his era like a Colossus.