BIOGRAPHY REVIEW: "Charles Dickens: A Life"

  • Article by: ANNE TRUBEK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2011 - 5:18 PM

The colorful world of Charles Dickens, a man--and a writer--larger than life.

CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE By Claire Tomalin

Charles Dickens was a restless man, it will not surprise you to learn. Many evenings he walked 12 miles, striding through the streets of London, later writing about those streets so powerfully that today we still imagine nighttime London as, well, Dickensian: crowded, sooty, full of character and characters.

In her new biography, "Charles Dickens: A Life," Claire Tomalin, author of biographies of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Wollstonecraft and other British writers, manages a very un-Dickensian book about a man who lived a dizzyingly full life. The book moves at a fast clip as Tomalin condenses years at a time into short chapters.

Some of the story we know: He was born poor, sent to work at age 12, and his father was sent to debtor's prison. He worked his way up through the Fleet Street ranks, writing for newspapers and magazines and serializing novels. His books were bestsellers; when he traveled to the United States in the 1840s, thousands thronged on the streets to glimpse him. (He loved the idea of America, but hated its reality -- he thought us boorish and smelly.)

Tomalin shrewdly spends less time on his childhood and novels and more on his domestic life. Dickens married Catherine Hogarth at age 23. It was no great romance: Dickens just decided it was time to establish himself. "There is never any doubt who is running the relationship," Tomalin notes. "He was putting his life in order, and he would always be the one responsible for keeping it in order."

But he could not control everything: Catherine, to Charles' dismay, was pregnant for most of her 20s and 30s. She bore him 10 children, and endured miscarriages. After the first few, Charles lost interest, writing letters bemoaning all the infants to his lifelong friend, John Forster.

Nor was he immune to depression, bouts of irritability and a midlife crisis that seemed to permanently alter his character. Tired of living with Catherine, with whom he never felt deep emotion, he publicly and cruelly separated from her, taking out advertisements in the papers explaining his decision. He began a long, secret relationship with Nelly Ternan, whom he met when she was a teenager and with whom, Tomalin speculates, he had a child who died in infancy. Tomalin stays out of the fray for most of the book, allowing us to follow events as they occur, but she is hard on Dickens' depiction of women in his novels and his treatment of them in his life. Of how he left Catherine, she writes, "You can feel sorry for him as he struggles, but it is impossible to like what he did."

After the separation, Dickens was no longer the jolly fellow well-met, but a middle-aged man burdened by obligations. He never made enough money, despite his extraordinary popularity, and only one of his 10 children achieved conventional success. Others died penniless, in jail, or pathetically living off their father's name. This, despite the example he set: Dickens established a home for former prostitutes and helped many people through hard times.

Coming from a family that did all it could to prevent him from succeeding, to creating his own huge family that did not thrive, the Dickens in this book is a consummate self-made man, a unique fluke, full of industry, tenacity, demons and spirit.

Anne Trubek is the author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Author's Houses." She is at www.annetrubek.com.

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  • An undated photo of author Charles Dickens.

  • CHARLES DICKENS: A LIFE

    By: Claire Tomalin.

    Publisher: The Penguin Press, 527 pages, $36.

    Review: Tomalin wisely focuses primarily on Dickens' domestic life, which was tumultuous and dramatic, with a cruel separation from his wife and a long-term secret love affair.

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