The facts behind the fiction
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