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The trou­ble with tack­ling a lit­er­ary gi­ant who was born 200 years ago is the un­likely prospect of find­ing any­thing new, par­tic­u­larly when Dick­ens’ life has been so scru­ti­nised. His good friend John Forster wrote the au­tho­rised ver­sion, The Life of Charles Dick­ens, soon af­ter he died and was gen­er­ous with Dick­ens’ faults: “It will not do to draw round any part of such a man too hard a line.” Oth­ers have clawed that back, like Thomas Wright, who in the 1930s ex­plored Dick­ens’ mid-life re­la­tion­ship with the young ac­tress Ellen “Nelly” Ter­nan. Even such an ac­com­plished bi­og­ra­pher as Claire To­ma­lin mines ground she dug 20 years ear­lier in The In­vis­i­ble Woman, her ac­count of Dick­ens and the ac­tress.

Un­daunted by what has gone be­fore, To­ma­lin has wrested from Dick­ens’ record some­thing won­der­fully fresh and worth­while. There may be noth­ing ground­break­ing in the con­tent but it is a book that sings. She has metic­u­lously re­con­structed his life, piece by in­ter­lock­ing piece, from the his­tor­i­cal record and the

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