The facts be­hind the fic­tion

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Re­view: Rose­mary Gor­ing

Claire To­ma­lin Vik­ing, £30

It was prob­a­bly in­evitable that Claire To­ma­lin, the doyenne of Bri­tish bi­og­ra­phy, would one day turn to Charles Dick­ens, the be­he­moth of 19th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture. To­ma­lin’s rep­u­ta­tion has been made with ac­claimed ac­counts of Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, but among her many other ti­tles is The In­vis­i­ble Wo­man, an at­mo­spheric piece of lit­er­ary de­tec­tive work in which she pre­sented a strong case for the young ac­tor Nelly Ter­nan be­ing Dick­ens’s mis­tress and the mother of his short-lived child.

To­ma­lin has there­fore rst ex­am­ined Dick­ens through the prism of a kept wo­man whom he hid from pub­lic view. This is like ap­proach­ing him by the kitchen door rather than the main en­trance, and it may ex­plain the tone of To­ma­lin’s bi­og­ra­phy, in which her sub­ject is ac­corded the re­spect and awe he is due, but of­fers none of the hero-wor­ship that colours so many other bi­ogra­phies.

Hers is no fem­i­nist re­vi­sion­ist work, but it is one in which women fea­ture promi­nently, as they did in Dick­ens’s life. In­deed, it is telling that To­ma­lin’s warm­est praise for her sub­ject is in­spired not by his finest nov­els, which are still un­matched, but for the pro­gres­sive Home for Home­less Women he set up to help re­form pros­ti­tutes.

Among the many skills To­ma­lin brings to bear in this modern-minded and most read­able work, is an abil­ity to con­jure a com­plex, feel­ing pic­ture not only of Dick­ens, but of the peo­ple around him whose per­son­al­i­ties so pro­foundly shaped his for­tunes.

She starts with his feck­less par­ents, who con­signed him to a year in a black­ing fac­tory, a pur­ga­tory which scarred him emo­tion­ally for the rest of his life. Dick­ens later wrote of “the sense I had of be­ing ut­terly ne­glected and hope­less”, the shame and pain of it still burn­ing. While young Dick­ens stuck la­bels on pots and, on his re­lease, was given lit­tle or no ed­u­ca­tion, his sis­ter Fanny was sent to the Royal Academy of Mu­sic, at 38 guineas a year.

Dick­ens’s child­hood has been pored over many times, yet it never fails to fas­ci­nate. Hav­ing in­tro­duced her ex­citable hero, whose nurse re­called he was “a ter­ri­ble boy to read”, To­ma­lin fol­lows him in a moth­erly, mat­ter-of­fact fash­ion through the mael­strom of ac­tiv­ity that was his adult life: work­ing as a clerk, then a jour­nal­ist, and mar­ry­ing the daugh­ter of the Scot­tish news­pa­per editor John Black, “ my rst hearty out and out ap­pre­ci­a­tor,” said Dick­ens of the man who pub­lished his sketches, un­der the name of Boz. So suc­cess­ful were these early pieces that butch­ers’ boys were spot­ted read­ing them in the street.

Dick­ens’s love of the­atre is well known, and were it not for one of his ha­bit­ual bad colds pre­vent­ing him from au­di­tion­ing for the stage, the his­tory of English lit­er­a­ture might be very dif­fer­ent. By the time the next au­di­tion came round, Dick­ens was al­ready set on his lit­er­ary path. Into his in­creas­ingly well-wrought and pow­er­ful works he poured t he dra­matic tal­ent that might have other­wise been spent on the boards.

Through­out his life, Dick­ens ap­plied him­self with manic fer­vour to work, fam­ily and char­i­ta­ble com­mit­ments. The moun­tain of tasks he set him­self is tir­ing just to read about, as he met dead­lines for nov­els, staged am­a­teur dra­mat­ics, went on tours, moved house, got in­volved with news­pa­pers and even set up his own jour­nal, House­hold Words, for which he steadily wrote. Added to this, he was con­stantly fa­ther­ing chil­dren, his ideal fam­ily of three quickly ex­pand­ing to 10, at the same time grow­ing in­creas­ingly dis­tant from a wife who had be­gun to eat and drink to ex­cess.

Like many men of his era, Dick­ens found com­fort in male com­pany, par­tic­u­larly with his in uen­tial friend, the critic John Forster. The af­fec­tion be­tween this pair was touch­ing, and were two men to talk as in­ti­mately to each other to­day, eye­brows might be raised. As To­ma­lin ex­plains, “Dick­ens and Forster both liked women well enough, but it was al­most im­pos­si­ble for women to give them the sort of good com­pan­ion­ship they craved.” Dick­ens ap­pointed Forster his bi­og­ra­pher, and that post­hu­mous rst-hand por­trait of him has in many ways still to be bet­tered.

What Forster could not tackle, as

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