Charles Dickens: A Life By Claire Tomalin, Viking, Rs 999
Claire Tomalin’s narrative of Charles Dickens’s life is preceded by maps and a cast list. Both would offer means for fresh re-imaginings of Dickens’s life and personality, and Tomalin’s precise glosses for each entry in the list are like signposts in the crowded and restless universe of his mind, work and relationships. In the last section of the “Cast List” that names Dickens’s friends, acquaintances and colleagues, the alphabetical juxtapositions open up the horizons Dickens traversed. “Cranstone, Frances (1836-58),” says one entry, “entered Miss Coutts’s Home 1853, expelled for trouble-making April 1854, died in Shoreditch Workhouse.” Miss Coutts built the “Home” for ‘fallen’ women with Dickens’s advice and encouragement, while Dickens engaged himself deeply and sensitively in the welfare and future of the girls. This concern for vulnerable women of the workhouse and the streets was one of his most enduring traits, and Tomalin pays particular attention to it in her account.
Cranstone in the list is followed by Cruikshank, George (1792-1878), “artist, friend of D, superb illustrator of Sketches by Boz and of Oliver Twist, the plot of which he later claimed to have originated, without any justification”. While admiring Tomalin’s pithy dismissal of the artist’s claim, the reader may move on to the next entry: “De La Rue, Emile, Swiss banker working in Genoa, and his English wife, Augusta, née Granet, friends of D in Genoa in 1844. De La Rue invited D to treat his wife for psychological disorders, and he agreed to do so by mesmerism, with only partial success.” Just reading the three entries in succession is sufficient to suggest the range of Dickens’s splendidly various interests and activities, if not the width of his circle.
Tomalin provides another set of signposts too, by quick references in her glosses to suggest where Dickens’s stood with some of his contemporaries. Anthony Trollope, for example, was a friend, but he disliked Dickens’s style, notes Tomalin, and placed Thackeray, George Eliot above him, describing him as a man “powerful, clever, humorous… very ignorant, and thick-skinned, who had taught himself to be his own God”. It is a priceless assessment that would have been lost in the main story.
In the earlier sections, Tomalin lists Dickens’s family, that of his wife, their children with brief notes on their spouses and offspring, and the members of the Ternan family. Dickens’s obsession with the 18-year-old actress Ellen, or Nelly, the youngest of the Ternan sisters, led to his separation in 1858 with Catherine, the mother of his 10 children — during which he behaved with uncompromising heartlessness — and an association with Nelly till the end of his life. In the narrative, Tomalin gives this event and its fallout their required weight, depicting with equal vividness Dickens’s cruelty towards Catherine, his unreasonable expectations of friends, as well as the feverish energy of his bewitchment, of his creativity, and his addiction to public readings.
Tomalin’s clarity springs from the respect and sympathy that impel the best biographers’ insights. In the Dickens-Nelly relationship, she has acquired the advantage of being on both sides of the table, as it were, having written Ternan’s biography earlier, in 1991, calling it The Invisible Woman. The rest of Dickens’s story, though, is not any the less rich, for Tomalin wears her scholarship lightly, letting it flow smoothly into her smartly paced story-telling, and allowing, by a discerning application of emphasis, the emergence of Dickens the human being, explosive, ambitious, astonishingly confident, restless, contrary, nasty, generous, humorous, endlessly kind to the less fortunate, over-emotional, yet stiff in familial closeness, and inexhaustibly creative. The maps at the beginning place Dickens in his surroundings in Rochester and the different parts of London as he moved from house to house all his life.
Tomalin’s task is especially difficult. Dickens is a novelist who remains, in a way, part of the definition of England, the “inimitable” whose work, in spite of its occasional sentimentality and melodrama, is read with ardour 200 years after he was born and whose personality seems impossible to pin down. His genius was irresistible, his novels often flouting expectations of high-bred literary taste, yet holding the reader in their grip till the end. Besides, his life has also been repeatedly written about, beginning with the biography his best friend, John Forster, wrote after his death. For a biographer, Dickens is both dream and nightmare.
Tomalin’s narrative, though, subtly emphasizes certain sub-themes that help to give shape to a life that constantly appears to be running out of a recorder’s control. There is a suggestion that Dickens, however confident of his abilities in spite of little schooling and a miserable stretch as child labourer when he was 12, had certain traits burnt into him by his unstable childhood. One was his desire for order, in his life, his work, his finances, his furniture, even in hotels — a desire that may have originated in the fecklessness of his father and the shabbiness of his surroundings when his father was imprisoned for debt. Yet this part of his life was one of the major sources of his creativity — lost or vulnerable children, workhouses, debtors’ prisons, unsympathetic schools, cruel adults as well as unexpectedly kind or funny ones fill the pages of, for instance, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Hard Times, The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit. So does London, its bleakness, grime and poverty, its mists, mysteries and terrors, much of which he absorbed during his endless walks around the city when living in lodgings while he was sticking labels on bottles of blacking or later, at the time he was a clerk, and then a reporter.
His own nature often upset the order he desired, but he was always aware of how much he was earning, fighting to get what he felt he deserved and recklessly abandoning publishers when he felt they were taking advantage of him. His need to earn prodigious amounts — although he had bad spells where he overspent, like his father — probably ran deeper than just the desire for fair payment. Tomalin’s narrative also suggests, although with a very light touch, that his rather unusual taste in dress, on which quite a few of his contemporaries commented, may have come from an uncertainty of class position. His grandparents had been in service in a nobleman’s house, and his father’s air of gentility was something of a creation, helped by his job as a clerk in the naval pay office. At the same time, Dickens’s lifelong love of the theatre may have contributed to his colourful attire too.
Dickens’s strongest passions — his hatred of injustice, his unwavering sympathy for the poor, his indignation at the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, his condemnation of the filth, grime, sickness, misery and want, both physical and emotional, in which the poor were forced to live — grew from his earliest years and deepened with his engagement with social issues. But Tomalin does not spare him in her criticisms of his novels, underlining his inability to portray women without theatricality, sentiment, or banality, or his tendency to go overboard with pathos and tragedy that could turn a novel as powerful as Dombey and Son into something almost trashy. It was typical of Dickens that he should weep buckets over little Paul Dombey’s death.
Tomalin is especially meticulous in delineating relationships. Apart from the one with Nelly, a truly striking account is that of Dickens’s friendship with Forster that evoked language close to love on both sides. Placed in the context of Dickens’s delight in travels and jaunts with his male friends, this relationship, together with a few other friendships with men, opens up another facet of a many-sided personality. Just as the novels, unequal yet gripping, continue to engage generations of readers, so their writer, as Tomalin projects him, remains fascinating in his complicated humanness and undimmed brilliance.