Friday, 4 November 2011

Claire Tomalin's Dickens: A Life

I can't put down Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens. I feel as if I am living in the nineteenth century, an observer of the writer's life, perhaps a servant or maybe a butcher's boy who calls with the chops and sausages and is astonished by his energy and sometimes alarmed by his mania.
For make no mistake, Dickens was a man of phenomenal energy and life-force. His constitution must have been magically strong. Charisma is too small a word to encompass him.
The beauty of this biography is that Tomalin's shows him warts and all yet indicates that the warts were, perhaps, an essential part of his towering, monumental personality. In fact there were more than warts, there were huge failings as a human being. Yet, I am reminded of the fact that we are dealing with a man who was born almost two hundred years ago and that some of these faults would not have needed to surface in the way they did in another era.
As I read with mounting distress the harsh way he treated his wife Catherine and his young lover Nelly I thought for a moment, why doesn't he just marry the girl? But he couldn't. Divorce was not an option, especially not for a man who did so much to create the notion of the happy family enjoying the Christmas turkey.
My favourite part of the book so far takes place when Dickens was in the midst of his marital break-up, a break-up considered so terrible that many long-time friends deserted him. He was starting a new weekly magazine and insisted that it be called 'Household Harmony.' His best friend Forster suggested that such a title would raise a few eyebrows. Isn't it delicious that the great spinner of words could not see what a terrible error of judgement such a title would have proved. In the end, Forster's arguments prevailed and the magazine was called 'All the Year Round.'

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