Charles Dickens: A Life
Three quarters of the way through her new biography of Charles Dickens Claire Tomalin warns her readers that ‘you might want to avert your eyes’ from a good deal of what happened during the year 1858. Of course, the instruction is impossible to heed and one reads on with increasing fascination as the tragic story of Dickens’ final years unfolds.
Dickens, like a grotesque figure in one of his novels, was at this time consumed with unrequited desire for the fair-haired, blue-eyed 19-year-old actress Nelly Ternan. Driven by uncontrollable passions, he walled his wife out of his bedroom and ultimately his life. He became the consummate Dickensian hypocrite, deploying lies, anger and emotional blackmail to get his way, while insisting on his righteousness.
‘The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying,’ notes Tomalin, with understatement. She deftly chronicles Dickens’ moral and physical decline as he abandoned his wife, home and many family members and friends to pursue and ultimately seduce Nelly.
The torment was not unproductive in a literary sense: Great Expectations was written while under Nelly’s spell. Tomalin speculates that the novel’s preoccupation with human failure and self-knowledge was an expression of his own self-loathing: these are indeed oddly bathetic subjects for a writer at the pinnacle of his worldly career. According to this plausible interpretation, Pip’s obsessive love for the unattainable Estella was a reflection of the author’s own feelings for the young actress.
Tomalin also shows that the relatively compact structure of Great Expectations, compared with loose and baggy monsters like Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, was an accident of the production process rather than a product of deliberate authorial design. Dickens had intended to write a much longer book, but decided to write it for weekly rather than monthly publication, thus giving sales of his magazine All the Year Round a lift.
Tomalin’s biography, at a mere 417 pages of text, is something of a miracle of compression itself, given the hyperactivity, productivity and even prolixity of its subject. As her exposition of Great Expectations demonstrates, the book is excellent in showing the interconnections between Dickens’ life and work and the age in which he lived and helped to define.
The early chapters describe the familiar story of the idyllic childhood years in Kent. There followed the terrible experience of being forced to work in a blacking factory rather than go to school and the visits to his father in a debtors’ prison. These are the emotional wellsprings that Dickens drew on for so much of his fiction, from David Copperfield to Little Dorrit.
In his early twenties Dickens made a rapid, improbable journey from obscure clerk to diligent reporter and sketch-writer. In the marvellous year of 1836 he became almost overnight a famous author with the publication of Pickwick Papers. Oliver Twist followed shortly after and from then on Dickens was a great celebrity, his works immensely popular with all strata of Victorian society.
Tomalin shows how Dickens’ extravagant plots and unlikely endings owe much to the popular culture of penny dreadfuls and melodrama in which the author was steeped. She agrees with those who feel he cannot write effectively about women and shows how he had tremendous imaginative affinity for the lot of the small man or indeed woman or child, the individuals who were trampled over by the great march of 19th-century progress.
Dickens was the very opposite of a conceptual thinker or writer and plots and characters emerged unbidden and unplanned from an imagination as stimulated by gin-punch as the teeming streets of London. Despite his empathy for the poor, neither his religion nor his political philosophy was consistent or well reasoned and the great social novels of the 1850s – Bleak House and Little Dorrit – show an emotional rather than an analytic response to the social problems of the day. But the books are all the more powerful for that.
Dickens’ living arrangements in the years leading to his death took as much plotting as one of his novels as he sought to conceal his affair. But Tomalin’s Life is so much more than a portrait of the artist as monster: this pithy work is an excellent companion to the life and works of one the great figures of the 19th century.
David Waller is Head of Media Relations, MAN Group plc and the author of The Magnificent Mrs Tennant (Yale University Press, 2009).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology