Review: Charles Dickens: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

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Whether you know him from his famous stories or as simply a Doctor Who character, there is no denying that Charles Dickens was a fascinating man.

 Personally, my relationship with Mr. Dickens is one that was formed on his second (or third, or fourth)-hand works. I had hoovered my way through at least six different variations of A Christmas Carol before I actually sat down and read the book. I adored the witty writing and the engaging narrative of the story when I finally did, but one can't help but feel that it was a little lacking in Muppets.
Oliver Twist brought bile to my throat with it's overuse of dodgy cockney accents to the point where I couldn't face reading it, and I found it almost impossible to think of David Copperfield without imagining bipedal cats as all of the characters.
In short then, I had a lot of catching up to do in order to learn about the great writer.

Claire Tomalin's biography Chalres Dickens: A Life promised to give a full account of the life and work of Dickens. Having previously won awards for biographies like The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft  and Jane Austen: A Life, the large task has been placed in good hands.

The book itself is a hefty object at some four and a half centimetres thick in it's hardback form. It's gorgeous to look at, with a low dust sheet with a gold title, which wraps a beautifully rendered full-cover portrait of the man himself. On the inside cover we are treated to a collection of coloured illustrations of some of the famous characters in his books and throughout there are glossy images of his dwellings and friends as well as charmingly drawn maps of his favourite haunts. It's a pleasure to look at and certainly a book you'd want to use to dress your booksheld, quite apart from the content inside.

It's a happy thing, then, that the content of the biography is every part as compelling as it's cover. 

Tomalin takes us through Charles Dicken's life in chunks of years. 'The Sins of the Fathers', 'A London Education', 'Becoming Boz'  deal with his early life as a young man who struggled with a father who was constantly in debt. As a result, Chalres had to work what he viewed as a humiliating role in a blacking factory alone as a child. It moves on to how he found his niche in writing and starts to reveal the hard work which would become the foundation of his success. We are taken through his life and celebrity, his philanthropy, his travels in America and how his growing brood of children affected him. Towards the end chapters Secrets Mysteries and Lies and beyond, we see the great man turn flinching and cruel in equal parts to his charm as he cast out his wife, entered into a secretive affair and how - in the chapter Pickswick, Pecknicks, Pickwicks - his health declined.

Tomalin is an excellent biographer well worth the praise that has been given to her before and after this work. She handles Dickens' life with a factual attention to detail yet with a skilful use of conjecture and narrative colour to really make the reader feel at one with the personality of her subject. There is no hero worship here: Tomalin praises his talent and hard work but also remains critical to his failings as a family man and as a product of Victorian prejudices. Though showing with transparency and care both his strengths and his weaknesses, we walk away feeling as if we truly know the man, which is surely the best compliment to give any biographer.

If you are also inclined to research further into his life (as I'm sure almost anyone would be after this book), Tomalin leaves a brilliant list of recommended works and notes for you to refer to.For example, I found Charles Dicken's philanthropic work in founding a house to care for (and re-educate) prostitutes fascinating, so will be seeking out Tomalin's reccomendation: Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley (2008).

In short, this is an excellent work of history and writing well worth a read.

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