My Review of Charles Dickens A Life by Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens  A Life by Claire Tomalin
·  Hardcover: 576 pages
·  Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (October 27, 2011)
·  Language: English
·  ISBN-10: 1594203091

Book Description
The tumultuous life of England's greatest novelist beautifully rendered by unparalleled literary biographer Claire Tomalin. 

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, The Times of London successfully campaigned for his burial in Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of England's kings and heroes. Thousands flocked to mourn the best recognized and loved man of nineteenth-century England. His books had made them laugh, shown them the squalor and greed of English life, and also the power of personal virtue and the strength of ordinary people. In his last years Dickens drew adoring crowds to his public appearances, had met presidents and princes, and had amassed a fortune.

Like a hero from his novels, Dickens trod a hard path to greatness. Born into a modest middle-class family, his young life was overturned when his profligate father was sent to debtors' prison and Dickens was forced into harsh and humiliating factory work. Yet through these early setbacks he developed his remarkable eye for all that was absurd, tragic, and redemptive in London life. He set out to succeed, and with extraordinary speed and energy made himself into the greatest English novelist of the century.

Years later Dickens's daughter wrote to the author George Bernard Shaw, "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me." Seen as the public champion of household harmony, Dickens tore his own life apart, betraying, deceiving, and breaking with friends and family while he pursued an obsessive love affair.

Charles Dickens: A Life gives full measure to Dickens's heroic stature-his huge virtues both as a writer and as a human being- while observing his failings in both respects with an unblinking eye. Renowned literary biographer Claire Tomalin crafts a story worthy of Dickens's own pen, a comedy that turns to tragedy as the very qualities that made him great-his indomitable energy, boldness, imagination, and showmanship-finally destroyed him. The man who emerges is one of extraordinary contradictions, whose vices and virtues were intertwined as surely as his life and his art.

My Thoughts on Charles Dickens: A Life
With  ‘Charles Dickens: A Life Claire Tomalin has covered the man who called himself "The Inimitable", from childhood to the pinnacle of literary success,  to the mysteries that surround his final days.

The book opens in 1840 with an adult Dickens at the height of his success, in a reconstructed scene from an experience in which Dickens took part in a coroner’s jury. Instantly recognizable is this crowded scene of everyday tragedy almost emerging at times with an almost comic sensibility at points in the details. There is a juxtaposition of light and dark in his writing and in his emotional life. This is a theme Claire Tomalin returns to several times in ‘Charles Dickens: A Life’. 

Two problems arise when writing a biography of Charles Dickens: First to outline his life – the small boy made to work in a blacking factory after his father is sent to debtors’ prison, the court reporter of The Pickwick Papers, the three-decade-long career as Britain’s premier novelist, the sad and scandalous end of his marriage and his liaison with an actress the age of his daughters and his premature death in 1870. Second is the amount of novel writing, magazine editing, political causes, family and friends that Dickens crammed into 58 years of life is just staggering. 

Already familiar with Claire Tomalin’s brilliant writing style, having read her biography of Jane Austen, I knew what to expect in terms of details and information.  Although, there is nothing here that is new, every generation needs to discover Charles Dickens for themselves and Tomalin’s Dickens is intelligent and very readable. Her prose is graceful and never calls attention to it so that it doesn’t interfere with the story. She has a gift for metaphor, especially when discussing The Pickwick Papers, she writes, “It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them.” Tomalin understands the dualities that run within Dickens; his struggle between order and chaos that runs through his work, as well as between good and evil. 

I highly recommend this biography for anyone wants to meet Charles Dickens for the first time or for anyone who would like to become re-acquainted with the man.

 Please feel free to leave any comments,


Hermes said…
Tomalin understands the dualities that run within Dickens; his struggle between order and chaos that runs through his work, as well as between good and evil.

Personally I thought Ackroyd brought this out better and I got a good perspective from Katey as well. I don't think there was any new insights in this one, at least for me.
Kimberly Eve said…
No, no new insights but a very interesting and informative read. Thanks so much for commenting Hermes.
Gary said…
Wonderful review! I'll add this to my TBR pile along with The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens!
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks for commenting Gary and that Letters of Charles Dickens sounds interesting!

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